It’s a line often spoken in war-at-home dramas, as returning soldiers struggle to relate to unscarred civilians: “You can’t imagine what it’s like out there.” These words surface once more in “A War,” though the audience may not feel the need for them in Tobias Lindholm’s rigorous, engrossing anatomy of a suspected war crime: In its nerve-shattering first half, it conveys the on-the-ground maelstrom of combat as vividly as any film on the subject. Retaining the matter-of-fact structural simplicity and procedural meticulousness of Lindholm’s superb ship-capture thriller “A Hijacking,” “A War” doesn’t seek to break new ground in the ongoing cinematic investigation of the Afghanistan conflict; rather, it scrutinizes the ground on which it stands with consummate sensitivity and detail. Arthouse sales should be brisk, particularly with leading man Pilou Asbaek’s profile set to soar on the “Game of Thrones” battlefield.
By sheer coincidence, “A Hijacking” narrowly predated “Captain Phillips,” Paul Greengrass’s (mildly inferior) film on the same subject, which might have helped its ancillary prospects in the long run. In writing “A War,” on the other hand, Lindholm can’t have been unaware of the crowded subgenre he was tackling: The soldiers may be Danish this time, led by compassionate commander Claus Pedersen (Asbaek), but the pic’s evocation of life on the not-all-quiet Middle Eastern front chimes in with comparable portraits in such films as “The Hurt Locker,” “Lone Survivor” and last year’s underseen “Kajaki: A True Story.”
That these tense glimpses are evenly alternated with vignettes from Pedersen’s home in Copenhagen, where his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) faces the daily strain of raising three young children unassisted, isn’t especially novel either. Nevertheless, any initial thoughts of Susanne Bier’s “Brothers” are swiftly banished by Lindholm’s delicately realist, melodrama-free approach to everyday domestic strife. In these scenes, Lindholm constructs a layered, insightful marital study entirely with negative space: Pedersen’s practical and emotional influence in the household is achingly evident in his absence. Lindholm also elicits a remarkable trio of performances from child actors Cecilie Elise Søndergaard, Adam Chessa and Andreas Buch Borgwardt: Far from standard cute-kid reactions, each one articulates familial longing and frustration in different, all-too-recognizable ways.
As such, human authenticity can never be derivative, and “A War” is a film that thrives on empathy and belief — even as those very virtues in its characterization account for tricky moral complications as the narrative develops. In short, telling strokes, Lindholm and his ensemble establish a firm, unsentimental sense of brotherhood among the men of Pedersen’s company, stationed in a remote Afghan province vulnerable to Taliban attacks. After one soldier is mortally wounded in a landmine accident, Pedersen responds to another’s nervous collapse not with up-from-the-bootstraps orders, but a sincere heart-to-heart and a cup of coffee. The commander’s fundamental decency may make him appear to be a model soldier, but he’s not an infallible one. During one panicked round of crossfire in an Afghan compound — realized with nightmarish visual and sonic vigor that veritably rattles the bones — he makes a risky judgment call that results in the death of 11 locals.
At this point, the film’s democratically separated parallel tracks join in unexpected fashion, as Pedersen is called home to face charges for bombing a civilian site. Cue a sparser but no less riveting conflict in the courtroom, as our hero is caught between his own integrity and the needs of his family. To reveal more of the trial would be to spoil Lindholm’s expertly paced unfolding of the case’s complexities, though as protocol is pitched against principle, not all viewers will necessarily be rooting for the same outcome.
Beautifully acted across the board, “A War” serves as a particularly gutsy, internally roiling showcase for Asbaek, who so impressed as a resourceful hostage in “A Hijacking.” His stoic, gentle demeanor can’t always mask profound flashes of pride, insecurity and terror; it’s a performance that earns the right to ever-so-occasionally lose its cool. As his wife, Novotny avoids hackneyed stances of long-suffering strength, exposing Maria’s raw wound of need and desire right alongside her weary resilience. More functional roles are still inhabited with texture and wit: As opposing lawyers, Charlotte Munck and Soren Malling (another alum of Lindholm’s previous pic) give the courtroom scenes personal, high-stakes crackle.
As in “A Hijacking,” editor Adam Nielsen is an invaluable ally to the writer-director’s no-frills brand of storytelling, his measured back-and-forth cutting finding subtle rhythmic variations and silently mounting momentum in a structure that seems prosaic on the surface. D.p. Magnus Nordenhof Jonck places his camera with maximum, character-framing care even at moments of pummelling chaos; Morten Green’s crisp, resonant sound design gives intimate interior scenes as much tension and punch as the breath-holding war-zone sequences. We may still not be able to imagine precisely what it’s like out there, but Lindholm’s spare, sensory technique does a fine job of inserting us, however fleetingly, into the lives of others.