This Movie Gets Right About War What Other Films Get Wrong

Pilou Asbæk in A WAR, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The Oscar-nominated Danish foreign film titled “A War” sweeps the viewer into its story as the  opening scene follows a light infantry unit hit by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in southern Afghanistan.

Set at a small combat outpost, hinted to be near the former Camp Bastion in Helmand province, “A War” does what many recent military and war-related films fail to do: depict combat complexities and military life realistically.  

Directed by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, “A War,” follows Capt. Claus Pedersen — the Dane’s company commander, played by Pilou Asbæk. Through the movie, Pedersen must manage his company, navigating dual responsibilities as a husband, father to three small children, and deployed soldier.

As with many complex situations during combat operations, Pedersen is presented with common and valid queries from soldiers, like “What’s the point of patrolling when you’re a moving target?” and “What are we doing here?” It highlights the struggles of communicating with the unit tactical operations center, the need for close air support when a unit is under enemy fire, and the decisions made in the tactical operations center by people who often have a limited view of what is happening on the ground.

Pedersen is faced with the responsibilities of ensuring safety for local Afghans and the soldiers in his charge. During the film, a hard, split-second decision made during a firefight has life-altering ramifications, which ultimately affects his family back home in Denmark.

“It was important to me to tell the story because it’s not only the soldiers that are sent away, it’s also the relative they leave behind that are directly affected by the decision to go to war and I didn’t want to forget that,” director Lindholm told Task & Purpose. “I wanted to remind everybody that the kids and the wives and the husbands of these soldiers are equally as affected by the decision, and we need to remember that before we start to exclude people from society when soldiers start to come back [home].”

In the current film era where the wars in the Middle East are often sensationalized, overblown, or show an implausible depiction of combat operations, it’s easy to see why “A War” is on par as a major contender for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

As Lindholm said, he and his team did everything they could to get it right.

In an effort to bring realism to the screen, he cast former Danish soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan. They acted as soldiers in the film, helped film scenes, and built sets depicting the combat outpost and nearby village in Turkey near the Syrian border, which had similar terrain to Afghanistan. Lindholm also cast Afghan refugees to act as locals and worked with military judge advocates and Danish military liaisons to ensure the lexicon, jargon, and complex combat situations were spot-on.

“I saw no reason to add drama. I wasn’t looking for the best drama, I was looking for a realistic picture of what has happened down there and in that finding the drama,” Lindholm said.

“It’s real human lives — both the Afghans and the soldiers and the families at home. It’s real human lives that I’m portraying so I have a responsibility to be truthful and real about it, not make it a romantic version where real people could feel their lives have been miscredited.”

Military and veteran viewers of any foreign coalition country will appreciate the authenticity depicted in seemingly minute details often overlooked in military dramas.

Everything was taken into account, from the authentic ranks and NATO patches on uniforms worn by the International Security Assistance Forces service members, to the handling of weapons, and the real-life events that drew from the lives of the wives and children back home.

Families in military dramas are often portrayed as blundering in a state of total disarray while their partner is deployed. “A War” highlights well the real, authentic, and complex day-to-day challenges of holding it all together despite the changes that affect a family. It accurately portrays how those relationships become more complex and change when a partner is gone.

“I was interested in the lives of soldiers not a political discussion where I was pro or against anything,” said Lindholm. “I just wanted to remind everybody that the Afghans are real. The soldiers are real, and this is not fiction happening in the news. These are actually real lives being lived by real human beings.”

The documentary-style film takes the fragile and complex decisions made in combat and life and shows its worth in that alone. After all, a real war story doesn’t require theatrics or unbelievable feats to convey the collective set of challenges combat veterans face when they return home.

“A War” is set to be released in theaters Feb. 12.

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