It’s rather subtle, but the sequence of events in Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s film “A War” hinges on the matter of that favorite of cinematic tropes, changing places.
The opening scene shows a single file line of soldiers on patrol in a small village in Afghanistan. A young man steps on a mine and bleeds out. We later learn that he had just switched his place in the formation with another soldier, Lasse (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) who watches him die, knowing he should have been, or was very nearly, in his place. Suffering from the trauma of this event, Lasse begs his company commander Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) to let him go home. Claus has already proved from his position behind the walls of company headquarters that he is a good, level-headed leader. He doesn’t send Lasse home–this turns out to be the first of several instances in which he manages to refuse someone something without compromising his likability–though he does take him out of patrol duty for a few weeks and decides to raise morale by leading the patrols himself. This is an act of altruistic bravery, you think, but we later learn that putting his men ahead of himself and his mission–that is, protecting civilians from the Taliban–will punish him later on in the movie.
All of this sounds very fraught, and “A War” certainly isn’t a barrel of laughs, but despite being a military/domestic/court-room drama, the film never creates more anxiety for the viewer than is necessary. That’s not to say my heart wasn’t pounding during certain scenes, but a film that’s pure action and drama is exhausting, and watching “A War” certainly is not that. This is thanks mostly to the scenes back in Denmark with Claus’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their three young children, who struggle without their husband and father, but whose lives are by no means bereft. The scenes with the mother and her children can be difficult, but are simultaneously intimate and charming without being cloying. When Claus returns home prematurely, life improves for the family, but the drama is by no means over. Instead of new tours of duty to dread, now the Pedersen family has to worry about the potential of losing their father to a four-year prison sentence.
The Danish justice system is a funny business as portrayed in the latter half of the film. In their first meeting Claus’s attorney explains that his primary interest is getting acquittals: morality and ethics don’t really seem to interest him. Then, to make this clear, he strongly hints that Claus should perjure himself, despite knowing that Claus would require one of his men to also commit perjury in order to get their story to add up. When the sentence is finally announced and the judge is about to explain why she came to her decision, Lindholm cuts to a close-up of Maria’s lovely weeping face and turns off the sound so that we never get to hear what the judge has to say. We don’t need to.
Helene is a French-American lady from Brooklyn and is an antiquarian bookseller.