Much of the first half of “A War” takes place in the dust and blood of Afghanistan, as the members of a Danish platoon try to makes sense of the chaos of battle. Much of the second half takes place inside a military courtroom back in Copenhagen, where the clean lines and empty backgrounds call to mind an IKEA-only design concept.
Director Tobias Lindholm makes his point: In the cold light of a military tribunal, things seem relatively clear-cut. In the middle of a firefight, it isn’t so easy to make the right call.
That contrast is typical of the film’s straightforward approach to dilemmas. “A War” is one of this year’s Oscar nominees in the best foreign-language feature category (representing Denmark), and it doesn’t so much bring new ideas to light as confirm our worst suspicions.
The Danish troops are led by the overworked Claus (Pilou Asbaek, from the TV import “Borgen”), a family man whose responsibilities on the front line are regularly contrasted with the struggles of his wife and three kids back home. He’s got the Bradley Cooper role from “American Sniper,” but without the superpower.
Claus is a decent man, but the prematurely deep furrow between Pilou Asbaek’s eyebrows suggests the stress beneath the calm manner.
In war, Claus is whipsawed back and forth between the head and the heart, without much time to weigh a decision. He coolly assesses an agonizing situation with locals, telling an asylum-seeking Afghan man to take his children back to their village, even though the Taliban will likely kill the family for cooperating with coalition troops.
But Claus also makes the emotional decision to accompany his squad on more patrols than a commanding officer would normally take, all because he feels the terror of the jittery Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), a solider unnerved by the sudden death of a comrade in the gripping opening sequence. (One of the film’s best touches is that two important roles among the Danish soldiers are played by actors of Arabic descent, as though to warn us about making lazy conclusions about what people look like in battle; Dar Salim plays the wry and empathetic Najib, Claus’s closest pal.)
Lindholm gives Claus’s harried wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) her fair share of screen time, as she tries to keep the children from flying apart — their oldest son is acting out in particularly maddening ways.
A terrible incident during a firefight in Afghanistan abruptly brings Claus home, which actually decreases Maria’s importance to the story. Instead, the trial commences, and our attention is given over to questions of responsibility and the future.
These are weighty issues and they create genuine intrigue, although Lindholm tends to play the issues right on the nose. The movie is thoroughly, unfailingly earnest.
All of the wartime episodes we witness feed into Claus’s critical decision during that firefight discussed at the trial. These include a scene in which a Taliban operative uses children as human shields, while a Danish sniper looks on in frustration.
This sequence is duly chilling, although it doesn’t have anything like the eeriness of the “American Sniper” scene in which Cooper’s sharpshooter talks to his wife over the phone while casually eyeing passers-by through the scope of his rifle. That’s a mysterious moment, and there’s not much real mystery in “A War,” except for the legal verdict.
Even when Lindholm tries to summon up a little visual poetry, as with a few shots of a hand-made kites spinning above the desert sands, it all feels a little too much like a stab at “visual poetry.”
With that noted, “A War” is undeniably thoughtful. The soul-leaching effects of war are never out of mind, and even when a group breaks into a cheer toward the end — a completely understandable reaction, from their perspective — the shout rings hollow against the courtroom walls. The sound is going straight into the abyss, which is where Claus is gazing, regardless of the outcome of his trial.
“A War” (2 1/2 stars)
A very earnest war film (and Oscar nominee for best foreign language film), this Danish movie follows a stressed-out soldier in Afghanistan and his wife back home. Straightforward and strong, the film captures something of the fog of war. In Danish, with English subtitles.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Showing: Guild 45th theater