Now that Tobias Lindholm has called his third feature A War, it belittles his second feature, A Hijacking, as the collective title choices reveal his calculating, eyes-lowered solemnity to be his starting point. He makes films like math problems, in which narrative austerity and formal minimalism combine to equal a proposed portrait of simultaneous specificity and universality. At least, such quantitative measures are presumed by Lindholm’s insistence on a consistently “stripped-down” style that unthinkingly equates handheld camerawork with gritty realism, mistakes tongue-tied characters for psychological complexity, and belies the history of European-Middle East conflict with a concluding cartographic lesson that speciously suggests one generation’s battles will be inevitably inherited by the next.
The first of numerous ho-hum visual ironies and binaries begins with a wide-angle shot of a desert vista, where a group of Danish soldiers roam. There, the closed-off severity of these stone-faced men is juxtaposed with the vastness of the space. Lindholm lingers on the exteriors of concerned faces and non-specific Afghan locations to complement the depiction of a nearby control room, where Commander Claus (Pilou Asbæk) detachedly stares at computer monitors, searching for answers through an unaccommodating interface. In effect, Lindholm stacks his own task as a filmmaker against Claus’s decision-making by suggesting that representation, much like war itself, is a lose-lose scenario: It’s either going to be too sentimental or too frayed from intellectual consideration to have a visceral dimension.
There’s a seedling of truth to Lindholm’s implied proposition that war efforts, like filmmaking, amount to unreasonable demands for dispassionate rationality, but the writer-director stages these claims through clunky dramaturgical scenarios, with the seams exposed at every turn. The death of a Danish soldier in an early scene peddles military clichés, where a line like “I watched one of my boys bleed out!” tritely communicates the situation’s ramifications, encapsulating Claus’s dilemma of keeping his men safe while ensuring the safety of Afghan civilians.
When Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), a low-ranking officer, expresses uncertainty that he can continue participating in combat due to trauma from seeing a fellow soldier killed, the confession simply sets up a later scene where Lasse nearly dies from a gunshot wound while in the line of fire. Nearly, as it were, since Lindholm plays the scene as if Lasse has been killed, only to reveal minutes later that he miraculously pulled through. A subsequent video sent by Lasse from the hospital, in which he thanks Claus for saving his life, milks these melodramatic inklings even harder. Thus, Lasse is less a character than a device to eventually test Claus’s judgment as a commanding officer.
Back in Denmark, Maria (Tuva Novotny), Claus’s wife, cares for their three children alone, while impatiently waiting by the phone every night for Claus’s call. Contending with screaming and troublemaking, Maria seems to bear the brunt of wartime as forcefully as her husband. In a particularly loathsome scene, Maria watches (and gently sobs) as her son’s stomach is pumped after he’s swallowed too many pills, an instance that too neatly, and manipulatively, mirrors Claus’s role to look on as his “boys” are perpetually endangered. Maria is reduced to a stock, disheveled woman whose absent husband constitutes her burden. She also, much like Lasse, only adds weight to Claus’s increasingly tumultuous headspace.
The crosscutting between Claus and Maria quickly constitutes the film’s central “war at home” metaphor, but the filmmakers do little with these vacillations other than place each parent in situations of continual trial and tribulation. A literal trial comprises the film’s last third, as Claus is charged with negligence in the death of numerous Afghan civilians, which resulted from his perilous efforts to save Lasse. If the dilemma weren’t clear enough, a witness testifies that Claus actually uttered the phrase “I don’t care who’s in there, we have to get Lasse out.” If A War imagines its central dilemmas as impossible and irresolvable, then the filmmakers struggle to convincingly import that logic into the DNA of the film itself.
Supporting characters consistently function as contrarian mouthpieces rather than flesh and blood personalities. In fact, the trial itself unfolds as a handy, if forced, narrative conceit that introduces arguments instead of people. That’s most evident in a female prosecutor (Charlotte Munk) whose presence only consists of levied claims against Claus’s disobeyed procedure. Were Lindholm adept at probing multiple characters at once, the prosecutor’s real feelings about the case could be explored at some length, whether through a revealing exchange or even a scene outside the courtroom. Instead, Lindholm remains conspicuously confined to Claus, who stares on during interrogations and cross-examinations while testimonies unfold. A late scene where Claus, cigarette in mouth, solemnly drives down an emptied street while awaiting his verdict epitomizes Lindholm’s preference for archetypal existentialism.