A couple of Russian soldiers are being held captive by a group of Chechen rebels in inhumane conditions, being forced to work for them as slaves and subjected to beatings. Little mercy is shown to other captive Russians, but Ivan can keep up the Internet connection for the rebels to broadcast their executions of prisoners and is useful as an interpreter for the English couple being held hostage – John and Margaret, two actors captured while performing in Georgia. The leader of the rebels, Aslan Gugayev, is using them as a bargaining tool to get his nephew and other Chechen rebels freed from Russian captivity. John is released to raise the £2 million demanded for the release of his fiancée, money that can be used to fund new kidnappings and buy new prisoners from other rebel factions to use as bargaining tools. Ivan is not an officer, just a regular soldier of little bargaining value as a hostage and he is also released. John puts a proposal to Ivan to help him get back into Chechnya to deliver money he has raised to the rebels and secure the release of Margaret.
War (Vojna) is not a conventional war movie, but I think audiences will now be accustomed from events in Afghanistan and Iraq to viewing modern warfare in a different way. The real war takes place behind the scenes, away from the big assaults and explosions, in forming alliances with rebel groups, in hostage bargaining, in terrorism, in propaganda and in psychological warfare. When violence does occur, it’s sudden, brutal and unconventional, with little consideration for the rule of law or the Geneva Convention. This is war at its most basic level – kill or be killed. Most of the film manages to avoid any more complex political message than this, depicting the situation as a humanitarian crisis, following the diplomatic response to the situation and then setting up the two men’s thrilling rescue operation. When the action scenes do occur, they are all the more effective and spectacular for their horrific realism.
Balabanov also uses a strong narrative structure to make a complex political situation more understandable for a wide international audience. Ivan (Aleksei Chadov), speaking throughout in a debriefing session to an off-camera Russian officer, explains his actions and his understanding of events, giving us an insight into the military operations and the conflict not only between the Chechen and Russian forces, but between Chechen families and factions. The freed English hostage, John Boyle (Ian Kelly), gives a more familiar – all too familiar recently – western viewpoint on the taking of hostages, how they are treated and how an ordinary citizen can get caught up in a diplomatic and political nightmare. The casting of both these parts is excellent, the different attitudes of the namesakes Ivan and John complementing perfectly. The characterisation of the English actors is spot-on, which is particularly impressive coming from a Russian director, showing Boyle as a prisoner demanding his rights as a human, while being deeply terrified and aware that his fate is really out of his hands. Ian Kelly is particularly impressive in this role, looking the part of a real-life person, not an action hero – and his conversion in the second half of the film is quite believable in the light of how British journalists have an increasing tendency to go gung-ho alongside troops in their quest to get as close to the story as possible.
John’s returning to Chechnya with a digital video camera to record the rescue attempt not only serves as an effective method of carrying the story along from a first-person narrative viewpoint, but it also serves as a sly commentary on the western preoccupation for packaging a war situation into a newsworthy document, as Ivan also notes in a comment about how the English word ‘shoot’ can be used for a camera and a gun. However, unlike the westernised impression of the Serbian war as little more than infernal trap for American correspondents in Harrison’s Flowers, War never forgets whose war this is. It’s not staged as a photo opportunity for western photographers and war correspondents or the chance to indulge in ridiculous heroics to rescue loved-ones from an incomprehensible foreign conflict. The effects of the war on the Chechen and Russian people is clear and uncompromising, as is the underhand dealings and political wrangling going on behind the scenes. That remains the subject of the picture, while the filming of the whole enterprise for a documentary a book and a possible future film project is effectively and convincingly satirised.
There is no doubt that Balabanov is in a politically contentious area with War and I don’t think he’s going to please anyone in his portrayal of Chechen rebels as brutal terrorists, Russian soldiers as indiscriminate killers of old people, women and children, showing politicians as ineffectual and bureaucratic, and the west more obsessed with finding a newsworthy story than having any real humanitarian interest in the conflict. It’s perhaps a little one-dimensional in that respect, missing out on the finer points and complexity of the situation, but on the other hand, it could be seen as cutting through the crap and the rhetoric surrounding years of conflict and seeing the situation and war situations in general as they really are – bloody, brutal and self-serving to a few people in positions of power.
The DVD comes with almost perfect picture quality. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, the image is clear, sharp and colourful. It’s slightly on the darker side of brightness and contrast levels, but retains good detail. There is no edge enhancement, but edges occasionally show a blurred green edge – (see image below) There is the faintest hint of digital artefacting and one or two very minor white dustspots. It is however a little bit juddery in places and there is some blurring in camera pan movements, which along with the 120 minute running time suggests that Tartan have again converted the transfer to PAL from an NTSC source. While this is not an ideal practice – and one that is increasingly common with Tartan Asian releases – it has to be said that the overall quality on this particular release is hardly diminished by the conversion.
The DVD comes with a choice of soundtracks. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is less effective, but strong nevertheless. There is no appreciable difference between the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks – both are strong and clear, only really opening out the sound in the powerful music score.
English subtitles are optional, but only translate the Chechen and Russian dialogue. One or two lines and some Russian titles are left untranslated. There is no hard of hearing option for the English language dialogue which makes up about half the film, and is not always clear through Aleksei Chadov’s Russian accent.
There are a few brief interview snippets with the director and cast in the Behind The Scenes (23:59) feature and a number of the action scenes are shown being filmed, but there is nothing of great depth in either. You get some idea of the logistical difficulties of filming in such terrain, as well as Balabanov’s insistence on making it as realistic as possible. Two Original Trailers (2:31) are included, presented in 1.85:1 letterbox. Both are identical apart from a Russian voice-over on one. Three TV Spots (0:53) show cut-down variations of the trailer. A Tartan Video Trailer Reel contains trailers for other Tartan releases including a trailer for Balabanov’s Brother.
It’s easy to misunderstand the point Balabanov seems to me to be trying to make in War. It’s simply showing war at its most base, self-serving level. Hostages are taken to bargain for the release of friends and family, vendettas are enacted and political capital is made out of propaganda coups by both sides. Along the way, the director gets the chance to indulge in an audience-friendly, conventional, action-war-rescue-operation while at the same time making a satirical point about conventional warfare and its depiction in movies. Anyone expecting a more nuanced statement on the political situation in Chechnya will not find it here, and there’s no reason why it should be here. Tartan’s DVD release is excellent, presenting the film with fine audio and visual quality, despite apparently coming from an NTSC source, with one or two useful extra features.
Last updated: 17/06/2018 13:01:31