One of my favorite things that a film can do is present a genuine moral conundrum, one that the viewer can chew on and discuss long after the characters’ fates are sealed. A War, the third film from Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm, is primarily interested in sketching a realistic portrait of a soldier forced into a desperate situation, and he charts the tolls that combat takes on soldiers and their families with impressive detail. However, the film’s most intriguing ingredient is the complicated moral question at its center, which ultimately ends up being its most frustrating element as well.
A War focuses on Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk), a commander stationed in Afghanistan who addresses his men’s plummeting morale by joining them on dangerous patrols through enemy territory. Meanwhile, his wife Maria (Tuta Novotny) has her own battles to fight at home, raising three children who are beginning to rebel against their father’s absence. When a questionable decision made in the heat of battle lands Claus under legal scrutiny, he and Maria struggle to hold their family together.
Throughout the film, Lindholm displays a strong eye for authenticity, and A War feels realistic from its opening scene, which jarringly portrays a routine patrol disrupted by a deadly explosion. Lindholm smartly maintains a dreadful sense of danger every time his soldiers are out in the field, and that intensity is amplified by the presence of numerous military veterans in the cast. The centerpiece of the film, a chaotic gunfight that leads Claus to make a haunting decision, is harrowing and effectively staged.
Even A War’s insistence on pivoting back to Maria and her and Claus’ children makes for a welcome digression rather than a momentum-killing distraction. The interplay between Maria and the children feels achingly genuine, and Tuta Novotny is excellent, selling the limitless affection Maria has for her children while always finding room for a note of frustration or terror at her situation. Maria is given far more shading and complexity than your typical soldier’s spouse character, and Lindholm makes the scenes where we cut back to Claus’ family both a relief from the stress of the battlefield and a potent reminder of what he’s fighting for.
Pilou Asbæk (currently featured on Game of Thrones as Euron Greyjoy) is a frequent collaborator with Lindholm, starring in all three of the features he’s directed thus far. His performance as Claus is impressive and collected, flavored with the confident professionalism of the best Michael Mann heroes. A War takes care to establish Claus as a strong leader, attuned to the needs of his men and loving to his wife, even if he’s just calling her from across the world, and Asbæk brings a pervasive sense of decency to the role.
That decency somewhat falters in the back half of the film, after Claus makes a deadly mistake, driven by bureaucratic obstruction and personal desperation, in the middle of a warzone. With legal consequences for Claus’ actions looming, Asbæk and Novotny do some of their best work wrestling with the implications of his situation. However, Lindholm makes a few crucial missteps, bringing A War close to posing a compelling moral question about the value of a life, but undercutting his own tension by stacking the deck in favor of his hero.
The best moral quandaries in cinema make us see both sides of an argument with no truly right answer, and A War’s central question is as thorny and tough to call as the best of them. Sadly, the film isn’t as even-handed as it thinks it is, never truly interrogating Claus’ actions or giving much credence to the very strong case against him, which is a questionable decision on both a story and character level. Despite the sparse and authentic work that Lindholm and his excellent cast do throughout A War, its underdeveloped path down its most gripping narrative avenue keeps this otherwise compelling and well-made film from ever ascending to greatness.
A War is now available on home video and VOD.