Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Program Length: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p
Languages: Hebrew 5.1 DTS-HD
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Lebanon is almost certainly the most claustrophobic war movie ever made. It also happens to be one of the most riveting, realistic and disturbing war movies ever made. Shot entirely from the perspective of a tank crew, Lebanon has understandably been favorably compared to the superb German film about a World War II U-boat, Das Boot. While Lebanon does not quite match the intensity of Das Boot, the comparison is both understandable and apt.
Lebanon is set during the opening days of the first Lebanon War in June, 1982. The Israeli Air Force has unleashed a furious bombardment upon a Lebanese town, reducing it to rubble. A tank manned by young, inexperienced soldiers is dispatched to accompany foot soldiers into the bombed-out town to clear out any remaining resistance. It quickly becomes apparent that none of the crew - even its commander, Assi (Itay Tiran) - has been in combat before. Assigned to protect a rural road, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the tank's gunner, freezes when ordered to open fire upon an oncoming vehicle. His hesitation likely leads to the death of an Israeli soldier and causes the rest of the crew to question his fortitude. Assi clearly is out of his element as a commander, as he allows the other crewmembers - Herzl (Oshri Cohen), the ammunition loader, and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, to openly question his decisions.
The foot soldiers, on the other hand, are lead by a veteran officer, Gamil (Zohar Strauss). After the firefight on the road, Gamil informs the tank crew that they will be entering the town and will assist in securing it. He assures them that afterwards it will be "a walk in the park." However, there are few things more unpredictable than war, and things go awry almost immediately. The Israelis expect some resistance from the Lebanese, but they are surprised to find themselves being fired upon and eventually trapped by Syrians. The members of the tank crew are tested in ways they never would have imagined just a few days earlier.
As noted, Lebanon is filmed almost entirely within the confines of the tank. When we see what is taking place outside, it is through the tank's gun sight or its hatch. When I was a boy I used to voraciously read World War II-themed comic books such as "All-American Men of War" and "Star-Spangled War Stories." I remember thinking that if I ever had to go to war, I would want to be in a tank so I would have some protection from being shot at. Any illusions I may have continued to harbor about tank duty were thoroughly dispelled by watching Lebanon. The interior of the tank is damp, dirty, foul-smelling and extremely noisy. There is nothing about being in a tank which could remotely be described as comfortable. The crewmembers grab a few minutes of sleep when possible and are bounced back and forth while the tank lurches forward. Their view of what is occurring outside of the tank is limited to what can be seen by the driver and through the gun sight. It has to be miserable duty, and the view of it as depicted in Lebanon is harrowing and unvarnished.
The film is entirely apolitical. There is no discussion about why Israel is at war with Lebanon, and the soldiers express no personal opinions about the fighting. Nevertheless, most viewers will see the movie as decidedly anti-war. It unblinkingly depicts the horrors of warfare, including a particularly disturbing scene involving civilian hostages. From the standpoint of the soldiers, it is about survival rather than strategy and tactics. Winning the war is more about getting home alive than achieving political objectives.
Lebanon is not a war film for the faint of heart, but it is one which leaves a lasting and indelible impression.
This Blu-ray presentation is surprisingly strong, considering the obvious limitations caused by most of the action taking place within the dark confines of the tank. That said, the shots of the exterior action, as seen through the tank's sight, are extremely sharp and detailed. Even within the tank the detail is commendable, with generally strong black levels and good shadow detail. Colors are generally muted, which is both intentional and appropriate. Close-up shots of the crewmembers do an excellent job of conveying the increasing anxiety they feel as the situation around them spins out of control.
Some sources list the original aspect ration as 1.85:1, but if there is any difference with this 1.78:1 presentation it is not obvious. The framing looks fine to my eyes.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack really shines. The surround channels are used very effectively to give the viewer the sensation of actually being inside the tank. The audio grabs you almost immediately when the tank first starts up and moves forward. The battle scenes benefit greatly from the very active soundtrack, and the subwoofer gets plenty of opportunities to rattle the room. The only language option is Hebrew, so most viewers will be reading the very good and clear English subtitles rather than listening to the dialogue.
The supplements on this Blu-ray disc are minimal and are shown in standard definition. A commentary track by director Samuel Maoz had been announced but apparently could not be completed in time due to production problems. This is unfortunate, because the film is largely based upon the director's own war experiences.
We are left with a reasonably informative "making of" featurette, which has a running time of 24 minutes, and the original theatrical trailer.
The only other extras are trailers for several Sony Pictures Classics films: A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop; Animal Kingdom; Inside Job; Get Low; and Another Year.
BD-Live features will be available on the release date.
The single Blu-ray disc is packaged in a standard Blu-ray keep case.
The Final Analysis
Lebanon is in some respects the "tank version" of the classic German film Das Boot. While it is not that film's equal, it is an intense, startling and in some respects horrifying war film which leaves a deep and lasting impression.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: January 18, 2011