Over the past few years we've seen quite a few movies that have used some sort of hook to create a different sense of being during the film. 'Buried' used the gimmick of being trapped in a coffin for a full 90 minutes, while 'Phone Booth' had Colin Farrell stuck in, yes, a phone booth on a busy New York street. Sometimes these kinds of story devices work, sometimes they fall a little flat. 'Lebanon,' distributed by Sony Picture Classics uses a similar attention-grabbing scenario in which we follow a group of Israeli soldiers as they drive their tank through the Lebanon war zones.
The camera never leaves the bowels of the tank. We watch as the new soldiers become increasingly distraught with what they are asked to do. The new gunner is afraid to shoot. Shmulik is his name, and for the most part we witnesses the war going on as he peers through the tank's telescopic crosshairs. As Shmulik moves the scope side to side we see the all too familiar scenes of war; an innocent civilian with his limbs blown off, a woman grieving for her missing child, and enemy soldiers moving in.
The feeling is claustrophobic. This handful of brand new soldiers is cramped together in tight quarters as the war outside rages on. The separation from the actual battlefield is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie. Even though these guys are following along with the men on the ground, there's some sense of invincibility because they're in an armored vehicle. That attitude soon dissipates as the men see exactly what war is like. What used to be a sense of invincibility soon turns to a sense of dread as the walls of the tank are no longer viewed as protection, but as a lumbering iron coffin.
'Lebanon's gimmick works to a degree. You get to feel like you're trapped inside this claustrophobic metal case with these guys. It's easy to understand how rattled they are when you can put yourself in that situation.
I enjoyed 'Lebanon.' Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz's artistic vision isn't lost because the whole movie is set in a dark, metal box. He pauses to let us see just how dank and disgusting it is to be in there. Not only are the quarters tight for a small group of guys, oil is leaking on their heads, cigarette butts are strewn on the floor, and at one point they need to transport a dead soldier who begins stinking up the place. After a while you get the feeling that these men would rather be out in the open fighting instead of cooped up in a smelly enclosure. On the other hand you can imagine that the men outside facing the gunfire head on would rather be inside that big metal box of protection.
'Lebanon' doesn't have much to add to the "War is Hell" genre, but it does tell its story in a creative manner, which helps us realize that even though wars cover vast swaths of land, the real drama is taking place on a much smaller, personal level.
'Lebanon's 1080p Blu-ray presentation works for the dark, brooding film that it is, although it has a few hang-ups that keep it from perfection. The entire movie is bathed in a haze of darkness. What else could we expect from a movie set inside a murky tank?
Blacks, for the most part, hold up well, but there are moments when the blacks become too strong and begin crushing out some of the detail. Ghosting of the image also happens every so often as the members of the tank crew make quick movements in the blackness of the enclosure. I noticed this ghosting problem mostly when heads would whip around in the darkness leaving a faint trail behind them. Colors are bland, but that's no fault of the transfer. This is a gloomy place, full of dismal looking soldiers. Any color that is added is that of muted greens, and tans from military uniforms. Detail can be wonderful during scenes of closeups as we watch each member of the team struggle with their increasing anxiety. There are other times, where softer shots hurt the detail of the picture during wider shots.
The view through the scope is perhaps the most detailed part of the movie. As we see what's happening outside through the tank's scope, details are brought out from the distressed looks on people's faces to the slow motion shot of a rocket propelled grenade heading straight for the tank. This video presentation definitely plays to its strengths and offers a strong video transfer for this specialized movie.
I was extremely impressed with the audio presentation provided by 'Lebanon' on Blu-ray. Boasting a 5.1 Hebrew DTS-HD Master Audio presentation this is one of the most jarring, explosive audio tracks I've heard in a long time.
The first thing you'll notice is once the tank starts rumbling across the ground, creaks, clanks, and clacks fill up the soundfield, making you feel like you're sitting right there with the crew. The creaking of the tank's hull is something that will stick with me for quite a long time. There are so many subtle, nuanced noises at work here, it's hard to focus on one thing. All I know is that when that tank was moving the entire sound stage lit up with lively, engrossing action that pulled me right into the movie. Another wonderful use of sound is the whirring sound of the scope as it moves from place to place. The entire sound effect engulfs the front part of the sound stage giving us an accurate representation of what that may sound like. The hull echoes as it rumbles along. LFE is alive and thumping throughout the movie from the low rumblings of the tank when it's on the move, to the deep echo of the tiny chamber whenever someone on top opens and closes the hatch. Whenever the tank is called upon to fire its rockets a deep thud is produced that rivals the LFE power of any modern day action flick.
Dialogue is wonderfully presented through the center and front channels, with only a few lines getting lost in the mayhem. There's even a scene where the men are yelling at each other while the radio crackles with orders in the distant background. You can still hear the voice on the radio as the men argue.
This is a fantastic sounding audio presentation, and is quite demo-worthy during the scenes where the tank thunders over the landscape. It's a very different type of audio presentation, but it works perfectly in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere the movie is trying to achieve.
'Lebanon's premise seems a little contrived, but the actors and the characters they play sell it. It's a thought-provoking film that makes you wonder what you would do if you were faced with such a situation. The video is fairly strong, but the audio here is stupendous as it sucks you right into the film and doesn't let you go. The lone special feature is an interesting one, it's always amazing to see how filmmakers are able to accomplish some of the work that they do. This one comes recommended.