Thursday, August 9, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: "Lebanon" vs. "Beaufort"

                The Lebanon War has been fodder for three significant war movies:  “Lebanon”, “Beaufort”, and “Waltz with Bashir”.  Two of them are good movies, one is a masterpiece.  All three are Israeli films with subtitles.  The Lebanon War began June, 1982 when the Israeli Army invaded southern Lebanon.  The goals were to expel the PLO, remove Syrian influence, and install a pro-Israel, Christian government.  The war was messy with the IDF battling the PLO, Syrian Army, and Muslim Lebanese.  The Israelis occupied southern Lebanon and surrounded the PLO in West Beirut.  A negotiated free passage was arranged for the PLO to evacuate Lebanon.  Things began to sour for Israel after the assassination of the Christian they had put into power – Bachir Gemayel.  The outrage that resulted from Israeli complicity in the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, forced the IDF to pull out of Beirut.  The Israelis remained in southern Lebanon for another eighteen years.  The guerrilla war waged by Shi’a militant groups eroded Israeli public support for the war.  In 1985, most of the IDF was withdrawn from the country, but Israel retained control of an eight mile wide security zone along the border.
                “Lebanon” is set on the first day of the war.  It is an autobiographical tale of a tank gunner and his comrades in a Merkava tank.  Virtually the entire movie takes place inside the tank or views from inside the tank.  The movie opens with Shmulik’s (Yoav Donat) arrival as a new crew member.  The movie quickly developes into a small unit movie.  The crew of four is dysfunctional.  Azzi (Itay Tiran) is the tank commander who is not comfortable with the responsibility.  Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), the loader, is a mouthy malcontent.  Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, is tightly wound.  
Gamil from guess where
 The tank is ordered to support a paratrooper unit led by gung-ho Gamil (Zohar Shtranza).  The tank does not mesh well with the elite paratroopers.  Shmulik freezes in their first action and cannot bring himself to fire on a car and a paratrooper is killed as a result.  He had never fired at a human target before.  The dead body is placed in the tank.  Later (having learned his lesson), Shmulik does not hesitate to fire on a truck which turns out to be driven by an innocent chicken farmer.  War is hell and confusing.
war through a gunsight
war can be confusing
                They move into a town.  There are dead civilians everywhere.  Gamil calls for the use of phosphorous shells (but since they are against international law) he refers to the weapon as “flaming smoke”.  They begin to encounter “terrorists” as they call them.  A Syrian fires an RPG at the tank and dazes them.  He is captured and chained inside the tank.  At this point, the crew wants out.  They are not heroes.  Even Gamil panics as they get surrounded.  The paratroopers are saved by following a Mercedes driven by some Christian Lebanese.  The tank is left behind and comes under fire. Yigal loses it and starts crying for his mom.  Shmulik is forced to take command and the tank plows forward. 
                “Lebanon” is based on the director’s (Samuel Maoz) experiences as a young tank gunner in the war.  He chooses to give us a “tank’s eye” view of war.  Much of the movie is seen through the tank’s sight.  The sound effect of the turret hydraulics adds an eerie touch. This POV approach is interesting.  What he sees, we see.  And what he sees is war undiluted.  The scenes inside the tank are also undiluted.  The inside of the tank (although too spacious) is appropriately groddy.  It is hot, they are sweating.  The themes are the corrupting influence of war, the fogginess of combat, and conscripts don’t always develop into hardened veterans.  The movie does not show IDF soldiers in a positive light.  The criticism of this depiction seems to be warranted because really no one  (including Gamil) lives up to the image of the disciplined, tough Israeli soldier.
                “Beaufort” takes place at the end of the war.  Beaufort was an old Crusader fort captured by the Israelis early in the war.  It became a strategic position in the security zone and was occupied by an Israeli garrison for eighteen years until withdrawn from in 2000.  The movie is based on the eponymous novel and covers the last few weeks.  It concentrates on the commanding officer, a twenty-something named Liraz Libratti (Oshri Cohen), but it falls firmly in the small unit subgenre and the “who will survive?” subsubgenre.
Ziv dressed for a job
waiting out a mortar barrage
                The movie opens with the arrival of a bomb disposal expert named Ziv.  He is helicoptered in to disarm a “device” threatening their supply route.  Ziv proceeds to get lost in the labyrinthian corridors of the fort.  His encounter with the bomb is reminiscent of the opening of “The Hurt Locker”.  After this journey outside the fort the movie settles into the claustrophobic confines of the installation.  The men are looking forward to going home, but the enemy (Hezbollah) are intent on making it look like their tails are between their legs as they leave.  The faceless enemy use rockets against the outposts.  It becomes apparent that not all of them will be going home alive.  There are similarities to the documentary "Restrepo".
                As losses mount and abandonment of the fort becomes more likely, disillusionment develops as Libratti and others question what was the point of holding the fort to begin with.  This aspect of the film reminded me of "Hamburger Hill"  This is amplified by the rumor that the fort was originally assaulted in a case of miscommunication after the high command had countermanded the order.  The situation has a latter part of Vietnam feel to it as the soldiers reference the public’s increasing opposition to the buffer zone.  The Four Mothers Movement (an anti-war organization created by mothers of IDF soldiers killed or stuck in Lebanon that put pressure on the government to fulfill it's promised withdrawal)  is specifically mentioned and Ziv’s father gives an interview lamenting his failure to instill an “instinct of fear” in his son.
                Although Libratti is the main character, the unit of heterogeneous soldiers is fleshed out.  They are a bit stereotyped, but not embarrassingly so.  Libratti is the most complex.  When we first meet him both his men and the audience question his leadership qualities, but although he does make some mistakes, his loyalty to his men and sincerity become apparent.  The second strongest personality is Koris (Itay Tiran) who is the clichéd cynical, embittered soldier.  He clashes with Libratti and argues that a good officer would disobey bad orders.  Oshri (Eli Eltonyo) is the friendly romantic.  Shpitzer (Arthur Faradjev) is the guy who could have been a classical pianist.  You get the idea.
                “Beaufort” is well acted.  The soldiers behave more realistically than the tank crew of “Lebanon”.  The dialogue is stronger and there is some soldier humor.  The cinematography is interesting, although not unorthodox like in “Lebanon”.  There is some effective use of hand-held to follow the movement of the men.  They are similarly claustrophobic.  It is more political and more of a message movie.  The message is the futility of war and how politics can even effect a small unit.  In spite of this, “Beaufort” was not as controversial as “Lebanon” because it questions the leaders, not the soldiers.  Whereas “Lebanon” traces the disintegration of a unit under pressure, “Beaufort” concentrates on coping.  Both are studies in command, but Libratti’s evolution is much more interesting and logical than that of Jamil and Azzi.
                In conclusion, “Lebanon” and “Beaufort” are good companions.  I knew very little about the Lebanon War before viewing them.  These movies (plus some research) have been good tutorials.  You can clearly see why the war has been called Israel’s Vietnam War.
Grades:  Lebanon =  B
               Beaufort =  A- 
Lebanon trailer

Lebanon full movie

Beaufort trailer


  1. Very interesting review. I haven't seen Lebanon and am surprised you liked Beaufort better. I wasn't too keen on it. It had too much of a theater play feel but it's not bad at all.
    I suppose when you say one is a masterpiece you mean Waltz with Bashir?
    That is decidedly one of the great war movies out there.
    I'm not sure I want to watch Lebanon. I've read a review a while back that made my head spin with the whole political analysis.
    What do we really know about the Middle East and its conflicts?

  2. Thanks.

    You are right about which movie is the masterpiece.

    I have to credit the Israelis with making movies that criticize their government and the army. I don't know if these types of movies could have been made in America.

    The Middle East is confusing, but this trio certainly taught me about the Lebanon War.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.