“It’s ok to be upset. We’re all upset.”
A War is about a Danish commander and his weary, overwhelmed young soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But besides finding a fresh angle to explore a conflict that has essentially been going on for the entire 21st century — Denmark sent nearly 10,000 military personnel to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013 — this morally complex movie succeeds because it fully explores the toll war takes on everyone involved. In this case, that also includes the unfortunate civilians caught in between the gunfire and at least one weary, overwhelmed wife/mother back home with three young children.
“He’ll be home in three months…it’s not that long.”
Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) is the company commander for a group of Danish soldiers stationed in the Hemland province of Afghanistan. In addition to intermittent skirmishes with the Taliban, their goal is protect local civilians. The company — mostly tired of doing “pointless patrols” — gets a traumatizing jolt early on when one of their men dies after stepping on a mine and getting the lower half of his body blown off. Meanwhile, we’re also shown Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) as she navigates her own personal minefield back in Denmark and struggles to keep their family together. (One son acts out in school by getting into fights, while another has to be rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped.)
Back in Afghanistan, Claus’s company becomes involved with a local family who provides them with intel on the Taliban. When Claus makes a call that potentially puts the family in danger, it leads to a disastrous chain of events that sends him home much earlier than expected. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a happy reunion for Claus and Maria as Claus has to deal with the consequences of his actions on the battlefield. Eventually, Claus is torn between having to lie…or telling the truth and being away from his family for much longer than he or Maria imagined.
A War offers a thorny philosophical issue at its center. Claus is presented as a good soldier who did something questionable for what he believed to be the right reasons. (His top priority is the safety of his men.) The film certainly moves at a deliberate pace in first hour, but a good deal of that time is spent illustrating the physical, emotional, and psychological strain in Claus’s life that led him to make a fatal mistake. And by showing us Maria’s slowly unraveling daily life, the movie also makes the case that it’s not easy for Claus to simply accept the consequences for what he did; after all his family at home relies on him just as much as the Danish soldiers who entrust him with his life.
Writer/director Tobias Lindholm also wrote The Hunt, a phenomenal Danish drama that didn’t offer any easy answers either. In fact, the “antagonist” in the movie’s latter portion is a no-nonsense prosecutor (nicely played by Charlotte Munck) who actually has the law on her side. But in presenting a conflict where soldiers like Claus are forced to play by a different set of rules than their enemies, having the law on one’s side doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the right side of an argument.
Asbaek, who previously starred in Lindholm’s A Hijacking, doesn’t appear to be doing much at first glance as the stoic Claus. However, this is an impressively physical performance that becomes richer the closer you look. In Afghanistan, Claus’s resolve slowly unravels as he becomes more disconnected from his family. I also love how Asbaek makes Claus look more slumped and shell-shocked in court than he ever did in a battlefield. Neither Novotny nor the movie overplay Maria’s troubles at home; while her anxiety at home is given the weight it serves, A War stops short of equating it to what Claus is going through in Afghanistan. The actress gives a natural, nuanced, performance that makes Maria relatable.
A War ends up being more simple and more powerful than I expected it to be. (I was convinced a missed phone call between Claus and his family was going to be tragic; it ended up being mundane.) Lindholm largely eschews politics and avoids juicing the movie”s drama in favor of telling a story that focuses on the 360-degree effect war has on soldiers, civilians, and their families on the ground level.
A War is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 33 mbps. The movie’s opening shot — soldiers patrolling the unforgiving Afghan landscape in the waning light — helps set the murky tone for the story. The gloominess and shabby detail of that opening shot largely carries over to the early scenes with Maria in Denmark. Not surprisingly, the image eventually gets sunnier when Claus and his men go on patrol in the daytime. However, fine detail doesn’t truly come through until the film’s final portion, which largely takes place in a harsh courtroom environment. A War isn’t out to win any beauty pageants with its visual presentation, but the consistently gritty image on this Blu-ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment serves the movie well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Danish track also features brief smatterings of English. The sonic presentation here is considerably livelier than its visual counterpart. Even before a key early explosion, you can feel a low ominous rumble in the subs that represents a vehicle in the distance. And prior to the movie’s climactic firefight — which features bullets pinging from every speaker — there are effective instances of directionality (like a goat bleating in the distance) that help immerse the viewer in this unforgiving environment. The track naturally becomes more dialogue-driven toward the end, but there are still some subtle, effective ambient noises throughout the sound field.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Behind the Scenes of A War: (5:24) A pretty standard Making Of featurette highlighted by some interesting on-the-set footage. Director Tobias Lindholm notes that many Danish veterans who served in Afghanistan turned up for the casting call, which helped with the film’s authenticity. He also expresses his desire to tell a story from the soldiers’ point of view.
Interview with writer/director Tobias Lindholm (16:30) This is the most interesting special feature on this disc. The filmmaker talks about how the conflict in Afghanistan is the first one Denmark has been involved in since World War II. Speaking of conflict, his most worrisome moment during production came when he decided to hire an Afghan refugee who had fought for the Taliban. Lindholm worried how he would mix with the Danish vets on set. Turns out the Afghan refugee and the Danish soldiers had more in common with each other then they did with their director who had never seen combat.
Interview with Colonel Arnold Strong: (1:31) Pretty generous to call this an “interview” since this is basically Col. Strong offering effusive praise of A War after a screening.
Los Angeles Film Screening Reactions: (0:58) A montage of other veterans talking about what they loved about the film and lauding its authenticity.
To be honest, I didn’t even know Denmark was involved in Afghanistan, so A War was an eye-opening experience on several levels for me.
The movie — a recent Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film — isn’t flashy and it’s certainly not out to cause a ruckus. Instead, it’s a thoughtful look at an ugly, uncomfortable part of the world that usually raises more questions than it answers.