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Long-Term Devastation Springs From A Hasty Judgment Call In 'A War'


This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film called "A War." It tells a fictional story about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, where Denmark, a member of the NATO alliance, has had a military presence. Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, the film is one of five movies nominated for this year's foreign language Oscar to be awarded February 28.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The writer-director Tobias Lindholm's "A War" centers on a Danish commander's error in judgment, which can be viewed, depending on your perspective, as a tragic mistake or a war crime or both. It's a movie that pulls you in so many different directions, it leaves you in pieces, devastated. The commander is Claus Pedersen, played by Pilou Asbaek, who looks a little bit like Ewan McGregor and will be seen later this year as Pontius Pilate in the remake of "Ben-Hur." Yes, there's a "Ben-Hur" remake. Pedersen's squad is in rural Afghanistan, charged with protecting Afghans civilians from assaults by the Taliban. He's an unusually hands-on commander, going on patrols with his men even when he doesn't have to. He's there when one of his company steps on an IED and bleeds out in agony. Later, a traumatized soldier named Lasse begs to leave. But Pedersen tells him gently but firmly that he can't return home to Denmark. Pedersen has to tell his own wife as much when she begs him to come back, saying their three sons need him. One boy is acting out towards other kids. The little one eats something he shouldn't and is rushed to the hospital. And Pedersen is similarly firm when an Afghan man and his family risk their lives by showing up at the gates of the base and begging to be taken in. The man's daughter received medical treatment from the Danes, and he's convinced the Taliban will retaliate by killing him, his wife and his children. But Pedersen won't be swayed, even when a fellow officer, a woman, gazes at him appalled. Regulations are regulations. I won't spell out what happens next, but it's a worst-case scenario on many fronts - an attack from all directions in a civilian sector by Taliban soldiers whom the Danes can't even see, much less count. That traumatized soldier, Lasse, is badly wounded. And there's no way a medevac helicopter can land without information about the enemy's location that Pedersen doesn't have. Every choice is potentially disastrous. So-called elementary rules of engagement don't seem so elementary.

Lindholm is best known for two strong films, "The Hunt," staring Mads Mikkelsen as an unjustly shunned teacher, and "A Hijacking," another thriller that comes down to terrible choices and ends on a bitterly tragic note. For "A War," he uses a swervy (ph), handheld camera in Afghanistan, and more plain, prosaic setups when the action shifts to a courtroom in Denmark. The two parts of "A War" are unalike in style and tempo, but of course, they're not meant to fit together. Pedersen's lawyer, as well as the soldiers under his command, ask how a Denmark jury can pass judgment when they weren't there under fire. If it's difficult to dismiss the fierce moral outrage of Pedersen's female prosecutor, it's almost impossible to root for a conviction. In both cases, humanity loses. But then, it's already lost. Women and children have died. Soldiers remain in Afghanistan, protecting people they don't understand against an enemy that makes a practice of hiding behind such women and children. You might expect a scene in which Pedersen weeps or shares his anguish, but as Asbaek play him, he's frozen in time, unlikely ever to emerge from under his protective shell. As an artist, Lindholm doesn't have to pass sentence on his protagonist to say whether or not he meets the definition of a war criminal. Claus Pedersen was clearly out of his depth. The question is, how many people would be in their depth under conditions so hellish?

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

On Monday's show, as scientists struggle to understand and contain the Zika virus, we speak with science writer Sonia Shah on the troubling emerges of rapidly-spreading diseases and the chances of an outbreak that could kill tens of millions. Her new book is "Pandemic." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.