Lebanon may as well have been titled What It’s Like Inside a Wartime Tank, as Samuel Maoz’s portrait of four young Israelis manning a roving war machine on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War is solely an experiential affair. Confining itself to the tank’s cabin and frequently assuming the POV provided by its gunner’s scope, the film boasts a physical restrictiveness in tune with its characters’ psychological distress, their frayed nerves worsening as their routine mission through a bombed-out town is complicated by surprise attacks and a commander’s order that they trust a couple of suspicious phalangists (Christian Arabs who sided with Israel) to lead them to safety. Maoz fixates on tangible physical details—the dank, garbagy tank floor, the goo dripping down its busted control panel like blood, the grime coating distraught faces—to create a taut sense of external and interior spaces, as well as of the crushing stress wrought by under-siege conditions. With assuredness, the scope’s-eye-view of battlefield action expresses both the men’s limited perspective and power over their circumstances. And during moments of downtime from its hectic action, personal side-notes—one guy recounts an amazing orgasm enjoyed on the day of his father’s death, another tries to send a message home to mom—attempt to demarcate the shadow-enshrouded soldiers as unique individuals.
Nonetheless, despite its cinematographic immediacy, generated via cramped compositions that ooze anxiety, Lebanon—unlike the similar visceral-impact vehicle The Hurt Locker—doesn’t have a multifaceted or unique characterization to offer. Its green, scared, and homesick protagonists argue in favor of self-preservation and freak out over the prospect of imminent death in manners rather routine, a fact unchanged by Maoz’s recurring fixation on their terrified eyes (and the accusatory stares of those they meet along the way) as a means of imbuing them with emotional depth. Just as these retina close-ups fail to convey anything more than understandable horror, a climactic mercy-pee granted to a captured enemy feebly expresses man’s capacity for compassion. Furthermore, references to both to the Twin Towers (seen in a decimated travel agency mural) and Israel’s use of sulfur bombs vainly strive to impart political shadings unsubstantiated by the rest of the proceedings, which deliberately eschew geopolitical commentary in favor of limp suspense. It’s a narrowly defined objective that reaps limited rewards, given that—at the risk of sounding glib—one hardly need endure Maoz’s film to comprehend that war is hell, that the young are ill-equipped for combat’s madness, and that life inside a tank can be bumpy, claustrophobic, rancid, and frightening.