Storming the Castle

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Directed by Joseph Cedar at Quad Cinema

War movies are about heroism. Good war movies cast existential questions around the circumstances of that heroism.
Beaufort is a great war movie.

Beaufort, the fortress built in Southern Lebanon by 12th century Crusaders, had been a war trophy taken by bloodshed for centuries. At the start of the Lebanon War in 1982, the heroic Israeli military suffered heavy casualties capturing the installation. In 2000, after 18 years of occupation and suffering ongoing casualties despite constant refortifications with layer-upon-layer of concrete blocks, Israeli forces lowered the flag flying over their isolated outpost in Lebanon, blew up the famously reinforced fortification and went home. The next day, Hezbollah’s flag was raised over the stone and concrete rubble.

Co-written by Joseph Cedar and Ron Lesham, Beaufort is based on a true story and Lesham’s novel about the withdrawal. As director, Cedar takes us inside the fort’s maze of concrete tunnels that lead to exposed guard posts manned by dummies intended to draw enemy fire, and introduces us to a small cadre of soldiers—smart, talented, thoughtful, handsome young heroes—left behind to wipe out the blood-stained landmark, or be obliterated in the process.

Ziv, on his first bomb squad mission, practices ritual preparation before tackling the landmine blocking the road to the fort. Korus contemplates mutiny but rushes in to save lives. Shpitzer plays guitar and sings like an angel. Oshri is the best mate and defender of 22-year-old Commander Liraz Liberti, a dedicated soldier whose decisions are usually quick and clear, but who is paralyzed by fear and the ever-increasing burden of his responsibility. These characters are so specifically written and portrayed that they’re effectively every mother’s son, every woman’s (or man’s) lover, every child’s father. And, so, they force us to contemplate the ultimate value of their sacrifice, to question the heroism of war.

That the movie is so quiet—yes, a quiet war movie!—enhances the contemplative mood. Frequent loudspeaker warnings of incoming missiles and thunderous explosions dramatically punctuate quiet, intimate conversations between guys trapped in no-exit, do-or-die or the do-and-die-anyway circumstances of war. Their conversations are alternatively mundane, profound, funny—coffee break chats in a bunker. No prevailing music manipulates mood; the palpable tension arises organically from the situations and character interaction.

In the larger scheme of things, the film seems to reflect and respect the feelings of mothers, lovers, sons and daughters—Israelis and those from other nations—who are tired of war, who abhor war, who think war is futile, who question the ultimate value of heroism expended in war efforts and under war-incurred circumstances.

That said, Israel is known—and shown in this film—to be, of necessity, a nation of warriors. Cedar was born in New York, moved to Israel at age five with his Zionist parents and served in the Israeli army for 16 years and is a veteran of the Lebanon War. Perhaps Beaufort, made after the birth of his first child, represents a shift in Cedar’s thinking or, in the larger scheme of things, in the Israeli people’s. Regardless, the nation has endorsed the film—and, one assumes, its message—by designating it as Israel’s official submission for the Oscars (although there has been some scandal surrounding it), and that is a seismic shift in itself.

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