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Like his previous film A Hijacking, the latest from Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm has a simple title. A War sounds modest, as if Lindholm worries the definite article is too authoritative, so the sneaky thing is how it achieves deeper, more universal themes. While hijackings and wars are often material for suspense or genre films, Lindholm opts for painstaking realism, a conceit that is nonetheless involving.

There are no heroics, and the camera never dwells on war movie staples like we’ve already seen from Michael Bay’s 13 hours. Instead, A War follows one man from the battlefield to home. The transition is difficult for everyone involved, primarily because everyone involved has a specific idea of loyalty.

The opening act takes place primarily in Afghanistan, where a small unit of Danish soldiers go on routine patrols through the mountains. While the work is dangerous, all the men adhere to strict procedure and the chain of command. Their leader is Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a tough but fair-minded soldier who takes a personal interest in eroding morale.

After an attack leaves one man dead, Claus decides to lead by example and go on patrols with those well below his rank. This leads to a deadly, heart-pounding firefight. Claus makes a split-second decision, and its ramifications lead to a war-crime legal inquiry back at home. He must reconcile his notion of personality responsibility, while also rebuilding his family with his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and their children.

Lindholm’s commitment to realism is impressive and a little exhausting. His cast includes familiar faces from Danish cinema, but also actual Danish soldiers and Afghan farmers. For Asbæk, a likable actor who starred in A Hijacking and will be in this season’s Game of Thrones, Lindholm’s approach creates an interesting subtext: he is the one who is there to pretend, and insist that the real conflict’s participants believe him.

A War weaves several different storylines: in addition to the battle scenes, there is a courtroom procedural and a family drama. Lindholm ably switches between these settings by keeping Claus’ mental state at the forefront of all of them. His decisions disturb him, whether they’re how he must lie to his wife, or the life-and-death stakes of a chaotic, oppressive battle. Lindholm mostly denies his characters a chance to say what they’re exactly thinking, and yet all the major choices come from people acting according to their natures. A War may have an inevitable conclusion, but it’s also the correct one.

Anyone who has seen A Hijacking won’t be surprised that A War his deeply insightful. The important thing about the film, and the reason behind its title, is how it the drama is also broad. Caspar is at the center, and his decisions affect everyone from children, to lawyers, to Afghan children, to the Taliban. That’s the point of the indefinite article: in every conflict, no matter how big or small, there is an important ripple effect to consider. Lindholm and his understated actors achieve this quietly, with more thought than theatrics. Caspar, Maria, and the others do not have the luxury to fully express their feelings, so it is easier for the audience to do it for them. A child’s emotional outburst is the envy of adults, as well as children in a war zone.

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