“Beasts of No Nation” is based on the acclaimed novel by Uzodinma Iweaga (2005). The book is about a child soldier in an unnamed west African country. Cary Joji Fukunaga wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the film. He spent seven years on the project. It was filmed in Ghana and the thirty seven day shoot was fraught with problems including Fukunaga contracting malaria. The movie was a sensation on the international awards circuit and the world distribution rights were bought by Netflix. When Netflix decided to stream it on their service simultaneously with releasing it to theaters this caused the major theater chains to boycott the film. Netflix was being punished for violating the traditional 90 day wait before a movie can released after its appearance in theaters. I have to go with the theater chains on this one.
A narrator tells us the country is at war. Schools are closed and children are looking for things to do. Oh oh. Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family are living a decent life in a buffer zone protected by Nigerian peace-keepers. This will change when the government’s military forces enter the zone. Agu’s mother and siblings are sent away in the mass exodus, but he has to stay behind with his older brother and father. Agu’s father and brother do not survive the cleansing process. Agu escapes to the jungle where he is captured by a motley crew called the National Defense Force. The creepily charismatic, but dangerously demented leader is “the Commandant” (Idris Elba). He sees something in Agu and adds him to his band. Training montage intercut with indoctrination from the Commandant. Initiation via a gauntlet. Agu has found a new family. He strikes up a friendship with a mute soulless comrade named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye). The commandant insists Agu prove he belongs by executing a captive using a machete. In an indelible scene in slo-mo and soundless, Agu complies and then some. He is all in now.
The NDF attacks a bridge and the Commandant uses his charisma to fire up his boys. This charisma goes from sinister to demonic when the Commandant’s special interest in Agu turns sexual. Fortunately, not graphically. A village massacre is ill-timed because the supreme commandant Dada Goodblood is in the “we’re not thugs anymore” phase of his political evolution. The Commandant is now a political liability and is demoted. The high fives have turned into a dagger in the back. So to speak. He takes his force off to carve out his own domain. Things do not go well. The salad days of murdering, raping, and looting are sadly over. And charisma can only carry you so far when your men are starving, diseased, and getting their asses whipped. How long will Agu remain loyal to his molester? Will he ever get to have that childhood?
“Beasts of No Nation” is the best movie about child soldiers in Africa, but I found it a bit disappointing. I read the book a while back and was disappointed in it as well. It is hard to say what is missing. The acting is stellar. Obviously the big draw is the wonderful Elba and he is worth the price of admission (or a Netflix subscription). He is perfect for the Commandant and may get some Academy Awards consideration. His transformation from Machiavellian to Mephistophelian is intriguing. Attah is excellent, but Agu’s arc is problematical. He is not a typical child soldier (like Strika) because he does not lose his humanity. He does not become hardened and a coldblooded killer. This does not strike me as realistic. Strangely, the plot sets up the expectation of a conflict between Agu and Strika as Agu becomes the new pet, but does not deliver. I give the film credit for being unpredictable. There is no losing virginity scene, for instance. The film can’t avoid the obligatory child play scenes. In contrast, the movie pulls its punches on atrocities. Well, not on the one where Agu earns his stripes. But that is the only time Agu kills anyone.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a very good tutorial on child soldiers. Unfortunately, it did not have the guts to tell it like it really is. It is an interesting movie and has some great acting and some amazing cinematography. It is well worth the watch, especially if you have Netflix and can stream it free. I could get used to watching new quality war movies from the comfort of my study. It’s just that after you have seen so many war movies that accurately portray the dehumanizing effect of war on adults, it’s a bit hard to swallow a happy ending for an impressionable boy.
GRADE = B