‘A War’
Director:
Tobias Lindholm
Stars: Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“A War” is a generic title for a soldier saga that’s only deceptively familiar. “A Hijacking,” the previous film by Danish director Tobias Lindholm, arrived in America shortly after the superficially similar “Captain Phillips.” By contrast it’s Lindholm’s fault his latest feels at least partially old-hat, sharing a lot of DNA with any number of serious (which is to say downer) looks at what it’s like to fight. We might even let our guard down, which is when it really attacks.

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A more clinical, never-roided-up “The Hurt Locker,” it drops us into a platoon of Danish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. War, as that film argued, is gruntwork, but it’s also addictive, and it can activate its participants’ worst instincts. No one — least of all our nominal hero, company commander Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek) — is a Michael Bay macho man, but they can still crack sickening jokes over kills and make light of what they’re going to tell their kids when they ask what they did in the war, daddy.

For its first half “A War” chugs along on episodes, toggling between traumatic and mundane. Fellow soldiers are killed or wounded in between bouts of insomnia. Meanwhile Claus’ wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), struggles back home to maintain a brood of three, one who keeps biting kids at school. We can’t imagine Claus or any of his fellow troops getting the same unwanted thrills in suburbia as they do on the ground, which is what makes it doubly shocking when he receives news that a snap decision he made in the heat of one of the film’s handful of combat scenes resulted in the death of 11 innocent people. Just like that he’s schlepped home, but it won’t be a form of release. A war movie transforms only briefly into a domestic drama before settling into a courtroom battle, with Claus tried for actions that might not be defensible.

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As with “A Hijacking,” Lindholm navigates through a seemingly simplistic narrative with a steady detachment that’s faintly Premingeresque. He has an eye for detail and a humanism that never feels strained, that sands over any potential histrionics. The trial could go either way, and as the prosecution piles charges and evidence against Claus we see him go from defensive to anguished. Even if he’s acquitted he’s guilty. 

This is a more mature film than “A Hijacking,” in which the corporate overlords who let the titular ordeal drag on for months were painted as broken robots, even as their inhumanity was shown to be ultimately tragic. There are no bad guys here, though the good ones cross ethical boundaries more than once. Lindholm's sense of realism is such that he again sprinkles real actors — including regulars Asbaek and Soren Malling, as Claus’ defense attorney — amongst non-pros, creating a dialogue between the true and the fictionalized. And yet it still feels slightly less essential, too reminiscent of other films on the subject, even as it nudges itself quietly in a specific and unique direction. It’s too alive to feel generic, but it too often feels like a typical idea smartly and sensitively done, not a new entry that adds to our understanding of life during wartime.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge