Not even hindsight is 20/20 in A War. Centering on one crucial decision and its lingering aftereffects, Tobias Lindholm's Oscar-nominated follow-up to the equally immersive A Hijacking is a clear-headed attempt to sift through the fog of war.
A Danish soldier in Afghanistan is killed by an IED during the opening sequence, raising tension among his compatriots as markedly as it lowers morale. Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) oversees the affected unit from the relative safety of a remote base, which instills in him a unique, acute strain of survivor's guilt — not only did he not prevent the accident, he wasn't even there to experience it alongside his men.
A Hijacking was easy to think of (however reductively) as the Danish Captain Phillips, but A War is without a direct or recent analog. American dramatizations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have mostly fallen under the action umbrella as of late, with The Hurt Locker's moral reckoning having been superseded by breathless action sequences. This makes Lindholm's take a welcome addition to the canon, not least because the Danish perspective is one we've yet to see onscreen.
Tragic though it is, the IED incident is mere prelude to A War's ultimate conflict. Under heavy fire while on patrol some time later, and with the soldier most closely affected by his friend's passing wounded, Pedersen makes a split-second judgment call by ordering an airstrike without visually confirming the enemy's presence in the targeted area. The ensuing fire results in a number of civilian casualties, and the entire half of A War is dedicated to the subsequent court martial back in Copenhagen.
After the fact, several mundane details instantly become salient. Even the men in Pedersen's unit who consider him a hero (which is most of them) admit that it was unusual for an officer of his standing to be out on patrol in the first place. Never mind that he was doing so in solidarity with his troops after being absent during what was previously their worst day on record — from the cold remove of a courtroom, this is a lapse in judgment that calls his very competence into question.
Asbæk, who also starred in A Hijacking and has a steely presence reminiscent of Michael Shannon, is quietly compelling as the commanding officer in question. His battered confidence is that of a man whose once-certain ideals are slipping away from him. Many of his co-stars are actual Danish veterans of the war, and it's to his credit and theirs that they mesh so well as an ensemble.
Though apropos of Lindholm's low-key style and the name of his last film, A War's title isn't entirely accurate. There are several battles being anatomized here, with the one in Afghanistan being only the most overt. Pedersen's wife is holding down a fort of her own on the homefront; the villagers Pedersen is trying to protect from Taliban insurgents may or may not be part of a cell themselves; and his legal entanglement threatens to take him away from his family no sooner than he's finally returned to them.
Lindholm brings the same riveting detachment to all of these. He's so comprehensive in his approach, deconstructing the pivotal moment from every possible perspective, as to instill in viewers the impression of being among the jurors presiding over this case themselves. Lindholm comes across as more impartial than most of us could hope to be, which is sure to frustrate some; that he's disinterested shouldn't leave patient viewers uninterested, however. The letter of the law versus its spirit is as central a conflict in A War as that between soldiers under vastly different flags. Lindholm makes its consequences feel just as dire.
Directed by Tobias Lindholm