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Review: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Premise: In the midst of a civil war in an African country, a young boy (Abraham Attah) is recruited into an army of child soldiers led by a charismatic commander (Idris Elba). 

What Works: The war film is a long standing film genre but its most popular entries are not usually those that tell the truth about combat. Motion pictures and especially Hollywood filmmakers are in the business of entertainment and as such they tend to conjure wish fulfillment fantasies in which we empathize with characters who embody or hopes and aspirations. For war films that means that the realities of combat are usually softened with romantic notions of heroism and stories of noble sacrifices. That’s what makes Beasts of No Nation so extraordinary. This picture thrusts the audience into the chaos and barbarity of civil war and it doesn’t make any attempt to manufacture a justification or discover a silver lining. The film takes place in an unnamed African country that has been torn apart by civil war. The politics of the conflict are never explained but that’s actually to the movie’s credit. The filmmakers understand that combat can become an end in itself and this is one of the starkest portrayals of the fog of war ever presented in a feature film. Beasts of No Nation centers on a young man, played by Abraham Attah, whose family is senselessly massacred. After fleeing his village, Attah’s character is recruited into a resistance movement led by a military commander played by Idris Elba. Elba is perfectly cast as the Commandant; he’s tough but he also has the fatherly qualities that allow him to command a band of youngsters. However, it’s Attah’s performance that makes the lasting impression. The boy transforms into a killer and the movie pulls no punches in its portrayal of the barbarity of war. This film plunges the viewer into moments of genuine horror and the way that the movie stages these scenes is impressive, recalling the latter half of Apocalypse Now. As brutal as it is there is also a beauty and even a poetry to Beasts of No Nation. For as much violence as they see and do, these soldiers are ultimately still boys and the filmmakers of Beasts of No Nation never lose sight of the tension between their barbarity and humanity. That’s where this picture is most startling and most effective. It’s a film about the way combat impacts those who fight and Beasts of No Nation is able to use the shocking imagery of child soldiery to put our expectations about the war film on their heads. Just as warlords who use child soldiers benefit from the naiveté of their recruits, the filmmakers are able to utilize the innocence that we associate with children to makes viewers reexamine our conception of combat. In that way, Beasts of No Nation is able to make the audiences question the violence that we often take for granted in the war film genre but it’s also able to make us reconsider the concept of innocence that we project onto youngsters.

What Doesn’t: There is a tension in Beasts of No Nation in its relationship to real life events. This is a fictional story based on a novel but it is clearly inspired by real life events in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.  But the film never names its location. That allows the filmmakers the latitude to tell the story in whatever way that suits them. But because the movie takes on a real life conflict and sets it in a generic place, Beasts of No Nation can be accused of viewing Africa as an interchangeable, homogenous place. It isn’t the intent of this story to educate us about the facts; it’s up to documentaries to do that. But the film does risk being confused as a representation of the specific realities in places like the Congo and Uganda and the picture stands to be praised as a true life story when it is a fictional fabrication.

Bottom Line: Beasts of No Nation is an incredible film. This picture is beautifully made while it captures savage subject matter and that tension leads to all sorts of subversive revelations about the way that we conceive of warfare and how we think about children.

Episode: #579 (January 24, 2016)