There’s no room to consider the political, military, or moral Big Picture in the extraordinary Israeli war drama Lebanon. That’s exactly the point. The life-changing experience of terrifying battle is compressed into one day in the life of four scared, green twentysomething Israeli soldiers as their armored tank rolls into Lebanon. The time is the earliest days of the disastrous June 1982 war that, even now, tears the Israeli citizenry apart — Israel’s Vietnam. The mission is muddled. All we see is what those soldiers see, grimy and sweaty and crammed into their claustrophobic rolling war machine, peering through the crosshairs of a gunsight, trying to distinguish friend from foe. Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner, is so overwhelmed that he can’t follow orders to shoot. At least at first. Each adjustment of the gun turret (the sound is something between a shriek and a groan) brings a new, incomprehensible vista through the scope.
It took writer-director Samuel “Shmulik” Maoz nearly 30 years to make this disturbing, visceral, personal film: Three decades ago, he was that tank gunner lumbering into Lebanon, commanded to duties that haunt him still. Maoz tells his autobiographical story with an immediacy that has little need for dialogue. (The ambient sound design is masterful.) Other men pass through the tank hatch: a commanding officer, a dead soldier, a Lebanese ally — or is he? Who’s to be trusted?
Lebanon, which won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, follows Ari Folman’s great 2008 animated autobiographical documentary Waltz With Bashir and Joseph Cedar’s despairing 2007 drama Beaufort, both Oscar nominees. It’s the third outstanding Israeli production in recent years to look back in sorrow and pain at still-raw Israeli history. So out of moral agony comes at least one hopeful artistic by-product: the new maturity of filmmakers with clear vision, willing to peer through the gunsight one more time. A