How does shaving cream work? What’s it like to pee in a box without touching your penis? How’s it feel to have flies eating your organs just after evisceration? These are the questions I was left pondering after Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, proudly proclaimed as “the Das Boot of tank movies”. I’ve never seen Das Boot, but if Lebanon is any indication, I haven’t missed much. It’s not fair to say all of the action takes place within the tank, since most of what you see is shot through a gunner’s scope, nor is it fair to say the film covers any new ground—it’s derivative of everything from Jarhead to The Hurt Locker, and surely countless other existential war dramas. The best thing that can be said is that it’s an okay rehash of everything you’ve seen before—but only “okay”.
Yigal, Assi, Herzel, and Shmulik are the tank’s controllers; Herzel loads ammunition, Shmulik fires weaponry, Yigal drives and Assi commands—though you honestly won’t remember what any of them do. All the characters feel faceless and uninspired—one is an only son with an aging mother back home, but I couldn’t tell you who. Eventually a captive Syrian terrorist is thrown into the mix after a failed attack on the tank and its guard, but all he does is sit in a corner and chug morphine for the remainder of the runtime. Other than that we’re treated to scenes of warfare through the crosshairs of a gunner’s scope; as the film progresses and the troupe is attacked, the scope becomes increasingly damaged and cracked. This is the kind of hackneyed symbolism you can expect from Lebanon—obvious and heavy handed. Focus isn’t paid to visions where it’s owed—a chicken farmer murdered out of confusion and pity, a donkey lying with his entrails half-pulled out, tears welling up on its face. These images are quickly glazed over in favor of “the tank experience”. Presumably, Maoz sought to produce a film that recreated the psychology—the crushing claustrophobia and mental anguish over inhumane treatment—he experienced during his time as a tank gunner. Unfortunately, it fails to reign itself in—is never completely in or outside the tank; the film’s single emotional moment takes place when Shmulik refuses to fire on a terrorist holding a mother and daughter hostage. Sympathy is gained not for Shmulik’s humanity, but is instead cheaply evoked for the mother who suffers the loss of a daughter, home, and the very clothes she is wearing. It’s a sad scene, but also entirely removed from the main narrative. The film smacks of a lacking confidence in its presentation’s ability to entertain; random events are thrown at us from outside the tank via its scope, visitors jump into the cabin pell-mell, none establishing character or purpose. It’s a panorama of things to see simply for the sake of seeing.
Over the last decade, film studios have churned out tons of absurdist war movies addressing the gritty psychological realism of military involvement—so much that the message has lost any relevance to the reality of wartime. You know what other job is stressful? Air traffic controller. And yet there’s no abundance of films centering around the struggles of charting flight paths and waving orange batons; no great drama of people sitting around a radar, radioing to a pilot about rerouting to LaGuardia. The closest thing we have is Apollo 13, and even that spent its first hour developing Tom Hanks’ family life. Imagine what a failure that film would be if it began on the launchpad and focused solely on the struggle to return home—that we knew nothing of Hanks’ homelife aside from occasional phrases like “Tell my wife I love her”. Stress alone cannot make a narrative—the hook of a wartime movie has to be its humanity; we have to care about the characters to care about their mortality, and Lebanon does little in the way of fleshing out its tank’s inhabitants. Instead, you’re given little more than fractured images of life during wartime—images not unlike those viewed through Shmulik’s scope towards the film’ end, and an experience just as frustrating.