Winner of the Golden Lion (first prize) at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the Israeli war drama Lebanon, from first-time writer-director Samuel Maoz, takes place almost entirely inside a tank, following four IDF soldiers on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War. The setting is its chief strength: a tight, dark, oppressively noisy tin can that often fogs with exhaust fumes, and at times seems like a moving coffin for the grimy, sweaty, frightened, ill-tempered men inside. Comparisons to the submarine classic Das Boot are unavoidable, but Lebanon has the edge in claustrophobic misery, even though the tank isn’t submerged 800 feet underwater. But the film’s visceral assault extends to the sledgehammer script, an amassment of unsubtle ironies and war-is-hell clichés that often reduce it to an amateurish theatrical stunt.
None of the four-man crew—a commander, a gunner, a loader, and a driver—has ever fought in battle, and their psychological and tactical weaknesses are apparent right away. Looking through the crosshairs of his gun turret for the first time, the trembling gunner can’t pull the trigger on a car full of hostiles, and an Israeli soldier dies as a result of his inaction. A few moments later, he accidentally blasts away at an innocent farmer and his truck full of chickens. The men and their beat-up tank take on several passengers along the way, including a captured fighter and a Christian Arab of sinister intent, and attempt to provide support for clearance of a civilian neighborhood.
Appropriately enough, Lebanon is a tank of a movie, a forceful, bruising experience that’s good at conveying shell-fire mercilessness, but dramatically less effective when dealing with the small stuff. Nearly every scan of the turret reveals some contrived picture of dramatic irony or pathos, and whenever Maoz seeks to score a larger political point, he stumbles badly, like portending the future by training his camera on a mural of the Twin Towers. At one point, a wounded donkey cries. It’s that kind of movie.