A trilogy of cautionary tales about the day-to-day lives and fateful decisions of frontline correspondents in Afghanistan comprises the affecting and well-made Austrian war drama “Thank You for Bombing.” Festivals including Toronto, Zurich and Thessaloniki have already feted director Barbara Eder’s second film following her 2010 grad school feature “Inside America,” and distributors brave enough to take on the subject matter will find this a prestigious addition to their libraries.
A timeframe for the action is never given, but the event that kickstarts the plots into motion is the burning of confiscated Qurans near Kabul, by American troops in February 2012. As the citizenry and military alike nervously await the blowback, the assembled journalists, as always a flaky bunch, walk the fine line between reporting the events and becoming the story.
In the first chapter, entitled “Milan Vidic,” older veteran reporter Ewald Bendl (Erwin Steinhauser) is summoned from Austria to cover the events. While waiting in the Vienna airport departure lounge, he recognizes the soldier, now travelling under the name Vidic (Merab Ninidze), who murdered his cameraman during their coverage of the Bosnian war in 1992. Or does he? Eder and cinematographer Christian Haake enlist Flughafen Wien as a character in this game of cat and mouse that concludes with the certainty that memory can be faulty but the scars of war are perpetually itchy.
Vermont-born, Berlin-based actress Manon Kahle gives a galvanizing performance as crusading journalist Lana in the second chapter, called “Fitz & Bergman.” With ambitions far beyond the Zumba classes that fill her downtime (“Smile, you’re in Kabul!” screams the off-screen instructor by way of motivation), she uses networking and good old-fashioned bribery to find the two soldiers responsible for the burning, only to take her life in her hands getting the story. The brutal climax of the sequence is tough to watch, but that’s the point: This is not the Afghanistan of Paramount’s recent “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”
Chapter Three, ominously entitled “War,” seems inspired by Captain Willard’s first-reel freak-out in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” “I really need a war,” says hyperactive talking head Cal, whose stand-ups keep getting cancelled for lack of anything on which to report. As Cal grows increasingly agitated by the inaction, his insubordination to his editor gets him fired, his lack of communication with his wife back home gets him an impending divorce and his unrelenting stir-craziness lands him on a desert sojourn with tragic consequences.
Though it clearly models its acerbic, English-language title on that of Jason Reitman’s satirical “Thank You for Smoking,” these emotionally wrenching stories, laced with pitch-black elusive humor as they may be, come across more like a particularly judgmental O. Henry than the dramedic stylings of Tina Fey. When the violence finally restarts, as it must, the sense of relief amongst the journos, amongst whom the three protagonists may be glimpsed in the denouement, is, inevitably, one of relief.
Eder’s assured direction is aided by the brisk editing of Monika Willi and Claudia Linzer, Haake’s limber lensing and the Maria Gruber’s production design on locations in Vienna, Jordan and Afghanistan itself. So, too, Eder’s balancing of a large and fine international cast speaking in multiple languages is seamless.
The script was written in collaboration with peripatetic director Michael Glawogger (“Our Friend Glawo”), who himself wasn’t afraid to travel to risky destinations for a story and died of malaria in Liberia during a film shoot in 2014. Deftly and somewhat freshly underscoring the absurdity of war, the film is book-ended by the words of Lewis Carroll, used to caustic effect.