The animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, which took a Golden Globe last night for Best Foreign Film and opened at The Clay last week, is an important and timely film about the human price of war. And to be sure, you can’t watch Ari Folman’s movie without thinking of both sides of today’s Gaza conflict. But despite the film’s many strengths, Waltz With Bashir turns out to be just a languid stroll.
The film follows Folman, an Israeli soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He’s now tormented by recurring nightmares of the war and the subsequent refugee camp massacre of Palestinian civilians. Folman tries to piece together his fragmented memories to understand his role in the massacre – he interviews old friends who were in his battalion and compares recollections. Through the prism of their collected memories, a clear picture of the massacre emerges.
The innovative animation and the surreal, dream-like narrative recalls Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But the animation is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, it helps successfully portray the war as absurd and futile. On the other hand, the comic-book animation limits the emotional range of the soldiers. Most of them look passive and glazed throughout. Not a single tear is shed in the face of numerous tragic events. Consequently, the documentary becomes more or less a series of episodic vignettes that lack emotional punch. Why is the middle-aged Folman trying so hard to remember the war? How does their post-traumatic stress affect the lives of these soldiers? There’s little evidence of PTSD in Folman or his friends. They’re just successful people who can’t seem and don’t want to remember anything about the war and occasionally have unsettling dreams. Consequently, the emotional stakes seem unusually low for a film that is essential about a war crime.
Waltz With Bashir does what recent films like Jarhead, Black Hawk Down and Apocalpyse Now have done before. It successfully portrays war as horrible, grim and absurd. But as a documentary, one expects to come away knowing a little more about the price these former soldiers pay today.