“Waltz with Bashir” is an astonishing film from the first frame to the last. It is a war film, an animated war film, mind you, but it captures the feeling, the emotions of battle far better than most films of its ilk, without ever succumbing to the preconceived notions of the limitations of that medium: It never feels cartoony, or forced; never seems exaggerated. The characters are drawn with an almost frightening realism that would have been almost impossible to obtain using live actors: We can see the fear, the sadness, the pain in the soldiers’ eyes, sometimes all three at once, and the effect is nothing short of riveting.
Though war plays a crucial role within the film, its focus is actually on Ari Folman, the film’s writer, producer, and director. As a soldier during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, all memories of the war, to him, are lost; blocked out. Almost as if he has succumbed to a kind of selective amnesia, he cannot recall any singular event, nor does he ever suffer from war-induced nightmares. But a visit from a friend, who tells him of a recurring dream in which he is hunted down by twenty-six dogs (the number of dogs he killed as a soldier) slowly seems to awaken his memory–that night, he has his first post-war dream. In it, he vaguely recalls the massacre of Palestinian civilians, and starts to wonder about his role in the mass killings. This begins his (and the film’s) journey to find out what exactly happened that lead to the deaths of innocent men, women, and children from the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He interviews several fellow soldiers with whom he fought side-by-side, many of whom reveal the images and sequences that have haunted them the most, and these sequences make up a good majority of the film’s 90-minute run time, and though they consist of the “typical” war film scenarios–narrow escapes, brushes with death, and gruesome killings–it is presented with such a unique style that it manages to present things in a way one has not seen before.
Going in, I will admit that I was fully aware of the pratfalls that such a project could have, and so I was half-heartedly expecting a pretentious, though well-intentioned, drama, where the animation was simply an attempt to make an otherwise clichéd tale seem somewhat fresh and original. But somehow, the film works entirely on its own to the point that I couldn’t (and still can’t) picture it being performed with live actors and not losing some, if not most, of its power; coming from someone who is not, as a rule, a fan of serious animated films, that is saying a lot.
But as incredible as the visuals are, it would be nothing without a strong soundtrack to accompany them; it is on these grounds that “Waltz with Bashir” truly shines. By allowing the war scenes to be told via flashback, many of the war sequences are reduced to nothing but action and music, allowing the film’s incredible soundtrack, a clever mix of war songs from the period (“Good Morning Lebanon”), to punk (“This is Not a Love Song”, by Public Image, Ltd.), to the use of orchestral pieces, to really shine through; at their best, the blending of visuals and audio become almost operatic in its approach, like a visual ballet of violence.
I have a theory that even the greatest films cannot be considered flawless; they are simply so good that they overcome their flaws. “Waltz with Bashir” is no exception: I was a little turned-off by its use of a real-life montage (showing the aftermath of the massacre) at the end, which seemed to me little more than an easy, safe attempt to squeeze a little more emotions out of the viewer. Now, I am not opposed to the use of archival footage for added emphasis, when its use is warranted (Brian de Palma’s “Redacted” comes to mind, a film seething with such anger that it would almost seem a crime not to include such footage); but it seemed a little odd to me that a film, already documentary in nature, mind you, would forego the use of actual footage in favor of animation, only to resort back to archival footage at the conclusion. But maybe that is just me.
Either way, “Waltz with Bashir” is one of those movies that is so solid for just about all of its run-time, that such a small complaint cannot even dent, much less destroy, any of the previous 89-minutes. This is filmmaking at its most thought-provoking and powerful, helped along by an amazing sense of style that pushes it from merely a great war film, to an essential one.
Rating: * * * * (out of 4)