a war
Danish film A War, directed by Tobias Lindholm, opens at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas Friday

Regular readers of this column may recall my summer 2013 review of a Danish film entitled Kapringen (A Hijacking). Directed by Tobias Lindholm, that film starred red-bearded Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted merchant seaman battling pirates off the coast of Somalia. I noted that the film was well made but on shaky socio-political ground, its Somali characters even more cartoonishly drawn than those in Paul Greengrass’s contemporaneous Captain Phillips.

It’s with a sense of déjà vu, then, that I pen this review of Lindholm’s latest feature, the Academy Award-nominated Krigen (A War), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 26. Sure enough, the film stars Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted, red-bearded Dane battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

In accordance with the wishes of George W. Bush to build a ‘Coalition of the Willing’, Denmark contributed combat troops to the Afghan war for more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2014, the Danes lost 43 soldiers – per capita, the most of any of country.

In A War, Asbæk plays Claus Pedersen, commander of a unit trying to control a remote stretch of dusty Afghan countryside. The risks are great and the rewards minimal, and as the film opens one of Pedersen’s men is killed by an IED. Chastened by a loss that took place while he was safely in camp, Pedersen vows to personally lead all future patrols.

Meanwhile, back at home Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is trying to keep the couple’s eldest son Julius in check. Clearly affected by his father’s absence, Julius is acting out at school and making things difficult for mom, sister Figne and younger brother Elliot. Satellite calls halfway across the world, it seems, are no substitute for the presence of a flesh-and-blood father.

Claus keeps his commitment to his men, but things go badly wrong when he orders an aerial bombardment that kills eleven civilians. Immediately called back to Denmark to face a tribunal and a potential four-year prison term, Pedersen also returns to his roles as husband and father – no easy task considering the circumstances.

As in A Hijacking, Lindholm displays little interest in his film’s brown characters. At best, they’re an ungrateful lot who don’t understand what a hard job Claus has, and serve primarily as plot devices to build viewer sympathy for the troubled soldier.

Pedersen’s persecutors and prosecutors are also a pretty rotten bunch. From the emotionless judge advocates interrogating him in Afghanistan to the smirking female lawyer trying to lock him up, it’s pretty clear Lindholm considers them his film’s bad guys.

In sum, A War is a feature-length analogue of Day One, mooted by yours truly to win this year’s Live Action Short Subject Academy Award. Neither film questions the wisdom of liberal interventionism; both films emphasize the personal sacrifices westerners must make to bring Freedom and Progress to ignorant natives.

I’m not confident that A War will win the big prize on Feb. 28 – the favorite is mooted to be Hungary’s Son of Saul, which I haven’t seen yet – but as the latest in a long line of films designed to make liberals feel good about the bad stuff they do, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...