In the past three years, Israel has come up with a trio of films about the Lebanon war that, for unflinching honesty, are unmatched by Hollywood or, I believe, any other country.
First came “Beaufort,” then “Waltz With Bashir,” both landing among the five Oscar finalists for best foreign-language film in successive years.
The latest production is “Lebanon,” the most harrowing of the three, but which shares with its predecessors an unswerving look at the emotional price combat imposes on all but the most mindless of soldiers.
Israel’s defense forces earned a well-deserved reputation for toughness, ingenuity and high morale during the 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars, but the mood and outlook shifted sharply with Israel’s incursions into Lebanon in 1982 and 2006.
“Israel’s initial wars were for survival; we were really motivated,” writer-director Samuel Maoz said. “Lebanon was our Vietnam. Israel had the better army but lacked motivation. It was the other side that was motivated.”
Maoz, like the directors of “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir,” fought in Lebanon; the films are drawn from their own experiences, and it took them decades of wrestling with their own demons before finding some kind of healing in making their movies.
“Lebanon,” the film, is told and viewed entirely from the perspective of four soldiers in their early 20s, crammed inside a hot, stifling tank code-named “Rhino” and bearing the macho motto “Man is steel, the tank is only iron.”
Inside, what Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, sees through a narrow aperture and Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner, through the lens of a periscopic gun sight, is all that the audience sees.
Rounding out the crew are Oshri Cohen as rebellious shell loader Herzel and Itay Tiran as tank commander Asi, who ultimately breaks under the pressure.
The 94-minute film covers the first day of the war — June 6, 1982 — as Rhino, with its novice crew, is dispatched to reconnoiter a hostile Lebanese town already bombed by the Israeli air force.
The scenes are gut-wrenching, especially of civilian casualties such as a distraught mother searching for her baby or a truck driver with his arm torn off. In counterpoint are the split-second decisions facing the tank crew — is the fruit peddler with the donkey-drawn cart really a disguised terrorist who will lob a grenade when he gets closer?
At one point, an Israeli major drops, literally, into the tank to announce that the use of phosphorus shells was unlawful. To overcome such a restriction, he tells the men to refer to phosphorus shells from now on as “flaming smoke” ammunition.
It took filmmaker Maoz 20 years to come to terms with his traumas and start to write of his experiences, and the trigger was the outbreak of the second Lebanon war in 2006.
“We realized that a new generation of kids was moving into Lebanon with no idea what they were going to encounter,” Maoz said.
The director said he structured “Lebanon” as an “experiential” film through which the audience could share and feel the dirt, fears and atrocities of war through the four men of the tank crew.
This remark led to a discussion of whether even the most truthful movie or book could convey the experience of combat to someone who had never been exposed to it.
An analogous point was raised by Elie Wiesel some time ago, when he insisted in an interview that only someone who had gone through the Holocaust had the ability — or, indeed, the right — to speak or write about it.
Maoz conceded the point, “At best, I can convey 5 percent or 10 percent of my actual wartime emotions,” he said. “My generation of Israelis is the Lebanon generation, and, despite any limitations, we have the responsibility to make others understand, as best we can, what happened to us.”
“Lebanon” will screen as part of the L.A. Film Festival on June 20 at 4:30 p.m. and June 21 at 10:45 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Stadium 14 at L.A. LIVE. For information, phone (866) 345-6337, or visit lafilmfest.com/2010. The film will open in L.A. theaters Aug. 13.