A version of this review appeared in The Age, December 2, 2010.
A thrilling if gruelling experience, this first feature from the Israeli writer-director Samuel Maoz is the most remarkable war movie since Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker – and unlike Bigelow, Maoz is drawing directly on his own memories of combat. The setting is Lebanon is 1982. The combatants are four Israeli soldiers, all young and panicked; their commanding officer, Assi (Itay Tiran) is possibly the least experienced of all.
Virtually the entire film unfolds inside their tank, which resembles a horrific womb – moist, dark and filthy, with water dripping from the roof. Their faces are smeared with mud; close-ups linger on their frightened eyes. They smoke continually and urinate into a tin box (it's awful enough just to imagine the smell) as their vehicle ploughs its way through a series of chaotic encounters with soldiers and civilians alike.
There are intermittent efforts to portray Assi and his men as rounded individuals, but essentially these characters are audience surrogates allowing us to share the battlefield experience, a point Maoz emphasises by treating their viewfinder as a constantly panning camera. For all the horrors outside the tank and discomforts within, the film can't help but convey the thrill of dealing out death from a position of relative safety: the glimpses of bloodied victims are shockingly immediate yet strangely unreal.
On a formal level, Lebanon has much in common with a pseudo-documentary like Cloverfield, which similarly uses first-person perspective to make us feel both involved and detached, scared and secure. In this sense, the film follows the tradition launched by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window (1952), insisting that spectatorship carries its own moral responsibilities. War is never simply a theme park ride – or if it is, then the ticket price is higher than most of us would want to pay.