War is legions of noble yet flawed soldiers whose actions challenge who they are and reshuffle what is right and wrong against ethical and moral rationalizations that follow them, from the chaos and bloodshed of the battlefield to the hushed desperation of the home front.
The ancient Greeks, with their tales of Heracles and Odysseus, understood well the demons and heartbreak of war. But Denmark, a nation not accustomed to conflict but which nevertheless sent troops into Iraq and Afghanistan to support the U.S., is dealing with the burdens its soldiers have endured and deeper questions about its national character.
Tobias Lindholm’s new film, “A War,” which screened this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is an exploration of how an everyman commander succumbs to pressures -- from his wife, himself and his unit -- to cover his misdeeds and betray his honor. There is no hero in this story, only a good man diminished by the consequences of hurried choices when Commander Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) calls in a mistaken and deadly airstrike on an Afghan village.
He is ordered home and put on trial for war crimes. Unlike “Lone Survivor” and many other American films about those conflicts, “A War” has scant bravado or grunting jingoism. The film is a quiet, penetrating work of long stares and contemplation, of characters feeling the gravity of what has been done and the fears of how they will escape it and return to some semblance of what was before. Relationships are tangled in a miasma of agendas, and loyalties are held to a scouring light.
Lindholm is at home on such terrain. He wrote the screenplay for “The Hunt,” a saga of a man wrongly accused of sexually abusing a child, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014. He is also a writer for “Borgen,” a Danish political TV drama. “A War” is shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination for foreign language film, and during the Palm Springs festival he sat down for a double espresso to talk about moral equivocation, judgment and failed conquests.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
Iraq and Afghanistan were the first [modern] wars Denmark ever fought. They defined my generation, and I knew I wanted to do a war film. The soldiers were a bunch of professional young men in a very difficult situation. They didn’t have a real mission. They were living targets, in a way. I read an article where a Danish soldier going on his second or third tour to Afghanistan said, ‘I’m not afraid of getting killed. I’m afraid of getting prosecuted when I get back home.’ Right then I knew that’s a story, to make a nuanced film where the premise makes a moral puzzle where we understand but do not defend what a war crime is.
Commander Pedersen is not perfect. He’s loyal to his men, but he makes questionable battlefield decisions. How did you write his character?
I don’t believe in heroes. Action makes heroes and bad guys, but no one is a hero from the beginning. I wanted to say here’s a guy, what’s he made of, what are his ingredients? That thought became the structure of the film. Let’s boil the modern man down to what he is. We have a professional arena where he’s a soldier. A personal arena where he’s at home with his family. And a citizen arena where he is in a courtroom and suddenly he understands he’s just a small bit of something bigger and colder.
The film shifts back and forth from his life in Afghanistan to his family waiting for him in Denmark. Why did the story spend so much time on the home front?
If we see a guy in a uniform, he’s just a soldier. But if we see a guy in a uniform with a family, a wife and three kids, then he’s more like me. We need to identify with him on a human level, to understand whatever he does in his job in Afghanistan he’s also affected by stuff that happens at home. He’s not just a mean killing machine going off to war. He’s a human being.
It difficult to convict someone of a war crime. It’s not cut and dried. A man will go against his morals to protect his reputation and his family. How did you balance all that?
We had to keep the film complex. We just couldn’t make a victim out of him. ‘Oh, he’s a victim of the system and his wife’s a victim of her husband being a soldier.’ We constantly tried to remove the victim feeling. When you look at Twitter, you get 140 characters for a tweet. We have simplified our understanding of the world so much because of the way we communicate. You want to put the truth into 140 letters. But that’s impossible. The world is much more complicated.
What was the reaction to the film in Denmark?
Denmark jumped right into the war with the U.S. and Britain. It came as a shock to everybody. We had no idea what it was to go to war. What we knew was the pain we felt after 9/11, an attack on the free world. We had to do something. But now in Denmark -- and this film’s part of it -- we’re going through a small-scale Vietnam phase trying to understand what we have been part of. Who are these [soldiers] we now have to bring back into society and understand again. How do we justify what we’ve done? Helmand in Afghanistan has fallen back to the Taliban. It seems right now that nothing helped, but all these people have died.
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