“I could nearly smell the Afghan air” — Reviews from WOTR’s screening of ‘A War’

February 27, 2016

Recently, War on the Rocks held a special screening of the Academy Award-nominated Danish film A War. The film tells the story of a Danish company commander deployed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. With his soldiers under fire, he makes a decision that results in civilian causalities. When he returns to Denmark, he faces a court martial while struggling to hold his family together.

The screening offered an opportunity for members of the military, veterans, their families, and many who have worked in Afghanistan to see the film weeks before its U.S. opening and take part in a Q&A session afterward with René Ezra, producer, and Martin Tamm Andersen, a serving Danish army officer who commanded a recon unit in Helmand and was also an actor in the film.

A War has earned wonderful reviews (including here at WOTR), but we wanted to share some of the thoughts of those who attended our screening — and who know what it’s like to go to war and to face the challenges of family separation.

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I’m a military spouse who has spent deployments on the homefront, but I’m also a DoD civilian that spent twelve months of my life in Afghanistan, working hard to make it a better country and to get myself home safely. With this background, the narrative forces in A War hit me hard, and from several unexpected directions.

I could nearly smell the Afghan air during scenes of the sun setting over the dusty Hindu Kush, and had that strange, romantic mix of nostalgia and weariness that comes from remembering that place. But I was also floored by the scenes of the woman at home in Denmark, struggling to stay awake to receive poor-connection phone calls, trudging through bland life, performing Herculean feats of emotional resilience, and the complex pain of the reintegration process. This wasn’t just a great war movie, it’s great, challenging cinema. Thanks immensely to War on the Rocks for giving us the opportunity to see it. You’re at the cutting edge of a national conversation that I hope will stay with us for decades.

— Charlie Stadtlander


 

As a member of the AFPAK Hands program from 2010-2013, I was embedded with the District Governor of Marjah District in Helmand Province. I found the movie more realistic than any other movie that has been made about Afghanistan to date. The scene in particular that resonated the most with me was when the Afghan father brings his child to the patrol base for medical help and also seeks refuge for him and his family. In accordance with the existing ISAF policies, the family is turned away with only vague promises of future support. For me, this scene and the subsequent scene depicting the consequences of this decision highlighted the moral dilemmas that were ever present for those of us in the Coalition who had to deal with locals on a daily basis as well the dilemmas facing the local Afghans who were caught in the middle.

— Mark Kustra


 

The word my husband — a Marine infantry officer who deployed to Helmand province in 2013–14 — and I continued to return to was “authentic” — physically, militarily, emotionally. For my husband, the environment, the language, the relationships, the intensity — all of it felt so authentic to his experience. For me, as a spouse, I also felt the film was authentic to my own experience. In the first few minutes of the film — when they were on patrol and you had a sense that something bad was about to happen — that was what I remembered feeling. The entire seven months. Your life goes on like normal, yet there is a constant, humming anxiety beneath the surface that something bad is about to happen. You’re waiting for a call with bad news. The other details — waiting for the phone to ring (which was usually hours later than it was supposed to be), dealing with others’ looks of sympathy as you try to carry on with your life like normal — it was all portrayed so well.

It was also authentic in its portrayal of the speed with which you return to the real world — the stark contrast between the two worlds. My husband noted the jolting feeling of going from Afghanistan back to Lejeune in 48 hours, and you definitely get this sense in the film. It was true for me, too. There is definitely a necessary adjustment period for being around your spouse again after being apart for so long (I was actually overseas for most of his deployment(s), so there was an extra sense of adjustment for us). There is also the reality that returning to the “real world” brings: the things that are so gray on the battlefield are viewed as black-and-white at home. The film does a great job of putting you there and making you understand the complexity of the main character’s situation. And you generally feel that he made the right decision. Being removed from the situation, however, provides you the privilege of time in analyzing these situations. We both felt this reality was captured really well.

For me, the icing on the cake was learning in the Q&A that the Afghan actor in the film was a former Taliban fighter. It not only underlined the complexity of the film’s plot, but also served as a final reminder of just how real this complexity is.

— Sloane Speakman


 

A War felt authentic. It captured the day-to-day events that defined the confusing and often heart-wrenching experience of modern combat in a way that I, as a post-9/11 combat veteran, felt comfortable with. The film offers a window through which civilians can learn and a mirror with which veterans can reflect.

— Daniel Trusilo


 

As an aviator, I’ll leave it to the soldiers and Marines in the audience to talk about whether it captures their experience. From my perspective, it definitely captures the worry of all servicemembers in combat — attempting to do the right thing for your men when it comes up against the edge of our rules.

The thing that I liked best about the film was the depiction of the home life when the military member is deployed. My wife doesn’t like war movies, but I’m taking her to watch A War because it is the most accurate depiction of the challenges (of the spouse, kids, and military member) during a combat deployment. Superb job here.

— Ryan Keeney


 

Very good movie that addresses the rules of engagement for an Army in the field — ROE defined while not under fire and under the pressure to save your men. The movie captures well the secondary effects on the leader and his family, like the crushing questions your children ask of you (Dad, did you kill children?). I also appreciate that it did an excellent job of showing an Army deployed, the radio is a lifeline, the TOC is trying to understand what’s going on. And I appreciate the ethical question the commander faced first when the local family asked for protection.

There was one additional aspect not shown, which is this: When a commander is relieved for what the men believe was protecting one of them, how do they operate afterwards toward their mission and their behavior?

I would show this movie in any military program to discuss ethics, ROE, and decision-making under fire — and how you look at the decision months later in front of a lawyer.

— Hank Waters