Set during the Afghanistan War, A War (Krigen) explores the haze and confusion of combat. Though it is assumed from the beginning, the specificity of the war these soldiers are fighting in isn’t named until the story returns to Danish soil. The idea here is twofold: in war, we can never quite distinguish the good from the bad — the white hats from the black ones. Second, the conflict that transpires isn’t specific to the war in Afghanistan. If war is hell, then it doesn’t matter which war it is.
But while the intent is purposeful, the execution isn’t entirely successful, and A War looks an awful lot like any movie about the horrors of war: confusing, dusty and miserable. A War visualizes this by providing close, shaky, hand-held camera work to further obscure the conflict and where the protagonists might take refuge. The obvious kicker is that these are not routine American soldiers, but Danish one. Yet, we come to learn little of their individual lives, save for our main character, Pilou (Claus Michael Pedersen). He is another good dude trying to do right by his soldiers and make it home to his wife and two daughters. How he accomplishes that provides the drama of the movie, which is contained mainly in a courtroom in Copenhagen. Only in the 21st Century could the conflict play out more interestingly in a courtroom rather than a battlefield.
A War is a movie designed to question the very nature and legality of combat and the emotional weight that can bring. However, the movie’s style hinders any ability to feel that weight as it remains close, too close, to the Danish soldiers. We are aware that there are victims on the other side — victims with families, hopes and dreams — but we are robbed of feeling their pain. The only pain and guilt we feel is that of the survivors.
A War is first fought on the dusty battlefields of Afghanistan, then in the sterile and cool confines of the courtroom. Director Tobias Lindholm, a disciple of the Danish Dogme 95 movement, and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shoot both similarly, with a documentary flatness that remains disengaged with its subject, regardless of the physical distance from the camera to the subject. The result is imagery that is underwhelming. This is best noted in the film’s closing bland and unspecific image. While this intent may be to rob combat of any kinetic energy, or anything that may appear to be somewhat attractive, the result is a dulling one. If only one image were to stand out in summation of the crisis that Pilou faces, then the movie’s style could elevate the mire of the conflict. Instead, we are left with a routine observation: war is hell.