Lebanon is written and directed by Samuel Maoz, and is based on his experiences as a soldier in the first Lebanon war. This fantastic Israeli film follows Shmulik as he gets his first experience in live battle as the replacement gunner for a tank crew. The sense of claustrophobia, confusion, and fear that is not just portrayed to the audience, but experienced by the audience, give us about as good a sense as we could get of how Maoz' experience of war was short of jumping in the tank ourselves. Through excellent pacing, directing, and acting a high-energy tension carries the audienced from end to end without any lagging moments.
The film opens on a lingering shot of a sunflower field, something which the director explained had a special significance to him personally - since the sunflower has only a short time when it is at full attention reaching for the sky and spends the rest of its time wilting he sees them as symbols for the soldiers of the Lebanon war and all wars, left only half alive. The crew are instructed to move to a nearby road and wait further instructions, and shortly another soldier, Gamil, walks down the road toward them, opens the hatch, and drops in to inform them that he is leading them on a mission to clear out a nearby town after the first wave has already taken out most of the opposition. The tank crew obviously have very little idea who this soldier is, showing the confusion that the director obviously felt when he lived the experience. The mission that they carry out is almost unimportant in the scope of the film, what is far more relevant is the way that it affects each one of them differently.
In light of this the director made specific decisions to draw the viewer into the film and give a sense of really being in the experience. The most obvious of those decisions is the setting of the film - the entirety is filmed inside the tank with the only times we are given an outside view being the opening and closing shots. The action that does occur outside is shown through the scope of the tank, or through the sound which acts as a kind of viewport itself. Looking through the scope the view moves from side to side nervously, zooming in on details which are not necessarily relevant to the mission at hand, but show the humanity of the gunner (for example zooming in on a dying horse rather than watching the road ahead). Adding to this tension is the directorial style which is reminiscent of both Hitchcock and Kubrick (particularly 2001), with drawn out silent pauses, lots of close up shots on details of the set like oil dripping down the walls of the tank, and a dischordant soundscape providing the musical backdrop.
Detractors have been quick to point out percieved innacuracies of the film, but Maoz has responded to them with conviction that he has made the film he wants to make: "This film is the truth, my truth. My emotional truth. After one test screening a mother came to me and said she had been planning to send her son to fight for his country, but now she was really thinking about it. I would rather make a film that makes one mother change her mind, than pleases hundreds of intullectuals across the world." While the major response to his film from soldiers across the globe seems to have been strongly favourable, a few soldiers, including some who faught in the same war, have expressed that they cannot match their experiences with the film. To those the director had this to say in addition to the above: "My war is not your war." With this we are reminded that at its core this is a film about an emotional experience, it is not intended to be entirely accurate and in fact like war itself there is a subtle hint of surrealism to it all.
Lebanon does away with special effects, complex story, and reams of dialog, and instead thrusts the viewers into that dark, wet, and claustrophobic tank. Our eyes are put to the gunner's scope and we see how the moral choices are effectively removed; how pulling the trigger or not are morally equal - one way you kill, the other way you allow someone to die. But unlike many other films of its kind, Lebanon does not attempt to tell us what is right or wrong, does not try to get across any overt political message. Instead it is simply the emotional experience of one man told as true as it can be. And that is enough to make it brilliant.