Through a Gunsight
Lebanon tells the story of an Israeli tank crew on the first day of the 1982 invasion. The entire film takes place inside the tank, and our only glimpses of the outside world come through the gunner's optics. It's an interesting experiment in perspective, but one that is ultimately undone by the narrative requirements of a feature film and director Samuel Maoz's reluctance to fully embrace the confined perspective he adopts. Watching Lebanon, I could not help but think how much more natural this story would have seemed in a game. This is, after all, how games tell their most successful stories.
At its best, Lebanon is a film about trying to see. On the night before the invasion, the gunner is staring through a starlight scope at a dirt lane through a cornfield. Suddenly a ghostly figure detaches itself from the smudged sky. A few quick, agonizing seconds pass before the figure emerges from the night-vision's murk to reveal itself as an Israeli paratrooper. The next night, the gunner tries to follow a some Phalangist militia out of an ambush using the same murky night vision. The Phalangists' Mercedes swims in and out of view as the tank labors to keep up, and the entire world seems to narrow to the cross-hairs and the car's lone working tail-light. The best moment in the movie comes when a helicopter hovers overhead to recover a casualty from aboard the tank. Suddenly the interior's gloom is pierced by blades of stark white light stabbing through the open hatch. The rotor wash leaves the crew looking like they are lost in a cyclone as they watch the dead Israeli soldier ascend.
But those moments are separated by lengthy sequences dealing with an archetypal crew: the scared kid, the cynic who is a week from mustering out, the sensitive gunner, and the inept commander. Lebanon keeps returning to a familiar story about familiar characters, as if we need their reactions to lend meaning to what we experience alongside them.
Confusion and doubt are the real drama in Lebanon, far more effective than the soldiers' shopworn reminiscences of home and family. It is horribly unclear what anyone is supposed to be doing. Their connection with the outside world comes in fragments, as the gunner's scope sweeps frantically around the tank. The crew starts with a mission, then suddenly they don't have one and nobody seems willing to help them or explain anything. They are followers who find themselves abandoned by the powers that be. The authorities cease to inform them of the world beyond their metal walls, and the tank becomes their limbo.
This fractured view of the world is common to games. Games usually let us see and interact with the world through tools. HUDs, sniper scopes, control panels, and maps. We wait for the voice in our ear to tell us what to do. It almost always does, and that is the disappointment. We are usually chained to some positive objective: Destroy the artillery battery at Waypoint Bravo, then reinforce Delta company at Waypoint Foxtrot. I wonder if players would know what to do with a game that put them in charge of a lethal killing machine, and then deposited them in a morass of confusion and conflicting orders. Games are driven by procedure and clarity of purpose. They can brilliantly evoke places like the inside or a tank or submarine, perceiving the world through a narrow periscope, a tactical map, and terse updates from the radio. But while they may portray chaos, they shy from inflicting it on players. Games have conditioned players to comfortable certainty. Discomfort and doubt are not native to this habitat.
It would be nice to see more experiments with them, just as Lebanon experiments with perspective. I wish we had more chances to discover what we would do if the reassuring voices over the radio ever fell silent, if no new objective appeared on the map. Too rarely, we get an intimation of what could happen if designers were not so stingy with their trust in players. Years ago, I was playing Operation Flashpoint and obediently following my sergeant's orders as he led me and the rest of my squad on a patrol. Then, without any warning, my entire squad was cut down by an onslaught of Warsaw Pact tanks coming up a village road. I remember how I thought we could fight them, and I crawled over to a dead squad-mate to grab his antitank rocket. I don't remember if I hit anything or not; I just remember realizing that we'd only had that one rocket, and there were a half-dozen tanks sweeping our hillside with machine guns.
I ran. Not toward an objective, just away from the tanks. It was a perfect, honest reaction. I wondered, as I ran, if I was failing the mission. If I should have stayed with my squad, even though I didn't see anyone else still fighting. Hadn't I done everything it asked? For a few minutes, Operation Flashpoint let me wonder if I had turned coward—if there was something I could have done.
The other half of Lebanon is spotting the story written across the scenery. An old man stares blankly at the tank while his friend is slumped over the table across from him, headless in clean white linen. The Israeli commander sitting down after a heated conversation with his superiors, and his face just crumbling for a brief moment when he thinks nobody else can see. Israeli paratroopers pulling a medic off a soldier who is beyond saving.
Perhaps you could not make an entire film from such moments—film has its rules, too—but I remember how the gunner's attention keeps wandering, as if he knows that what is happening all around him matters more than the story unfolding ahead, as the tank drives inexorably forward, like it's mounted on rails.