I can’t deal with tight spaces, let alone sharing them with others, so as I watched Lebanon – a film in which four men spend hours trapped in the sweltering confines of a tank – I literally had to pause the movie several times to step out of the room and get some air. This is one of those rare movies that actually goad a physical response from me. It’s not a pleasant film to watch but, in spite of bouts of claustrophobic panic and the occasional onset of nausea, I persevered as Lebanon is quite simply one of the most unique and affecting war movies I’ve ever seen.
An Israeli tank crew gears up for what is supposed to be a simple clean-up mission at the start of the First Lebanon War. The crew consists of indecisive tank commander, Assi (Itay Tiran); insubordinate loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen); baby-faced driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov); and their newest member (and combat virgin), main gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat). The crew is being escorted by a squad of IDF paratroopers led by the battle-hardened Gamil (Zohar Strauss), where they are to carry out a series of minor missions through a bombed out section of the country en route to friendly territory.
Things get off to a disastrous start when the tank crew and the troopers are ordered to protect a road. Gamil instructs Shmulik to fire two warning shots at any approaching vehicles and, in the event that the vehicle doesn’t stop, one shell into its engine block. Shmulik is immediately put to the test when a speeding car barrels toward them, but he panics and can’t get off the final shot, leaving it up to the troopers outside to force the vehicle off the road. In the scrum, one of the troopers dies and two terrorists escape. When Shmulik is given a chance to redeem himself, he jumps the gun, and destroys a civilian vehicle transporting chickens. Shmulik is devastated when he sees the vehicle’s elderly driver laying by the side of the road, limbs blown off and screaming, and watches in horror as Gamil coldly puts the man out of his misery. Gamil returns to the tank and tells the men they are moving on, and assures them that the rest of their mission won’t be nearly as eventful. It isn’t long, however, before the tank and their escorts find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Syrian occupied war zone, and, with no hope for reinforcements or extraction, this small force must fight to survive until their superiors can find a way to get them out.
Much like the classic submarine drama, Das Boot, the action in Lebanon is confined to the inside of the tank, with anything happening beyond its confines seen through the crosshairs of Shmulik’s scope. As with Das Boot, the result is a harrowing, truly claustrophobic viewing experience, amplified by stomach-turning sights and unnerving sounds both inside and outside of the vehicle. At one point, the vehicle is rocked by an RPG hit, knocking over containers filled with urine and Hertzel’s stash of croutons, coating the crew and the walls of turret with a moss-like covering of piss-soaked bread bits. For the rest of the film, the crew slosh about in a puddle of urine, sweat, blood, and oil, sharing their already limited space with a captured Syrian soldier (Dudu Tassa).
Lebanon is difficult to watch at times, but it’s so gorgeously filmed it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off of it. There are moments in the film that remind me of Malick’s The Thin Red Line, where the beautiful scenery stands in stark contrast to the horrors of war. There’s an eerily dreamlike quality to the film, with long static shots of wilted sunflower fields or slow crawls across battle scarred billboards of a travel agency before panning away to the devastation that surrounds it. Even the “ugly” bits are shot in such a way that they’re visually compelling.
Presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Lebanon looks absolutely breathtaking on Blu-ray. The level of detail is amazing, from uniform textures to fine facial features, every stitch, thread, pore, and piece of stubble is accounted for. The image is a bit washed out and grainy at times, but that’s in keeping with the modern “gritty war movie” aesthete, and is mostly evident when we’re seeing things through the gunner’s scope of the tank, while inside the vehicle, the image is bathed in the dark golden hue of the tank’s meager lighting. Still, even in its darkest moments, detail is abundant, while deep, true blacks lend a palpable sense of depth to the image. It’s a near flawless transfer that’s complimented by an equally impressive 5.1 Dolby DTS HD track that is every bit as immersive as the image is eye-popping.
Extras are limited to a short behind-the-scenes featurette (in Hebrew with English subtitles), the film’s theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Sony releases.
Lebanon is a gripping, emotionally charged film that’s equal parts art house meditation on the horrors of combat and suspenseful thinking man’s war drama. Sony’s Blu-ray treatment offers reference quality video and blistering audio, but lacks in terms of quality supplemental features. Still, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.