Waltz With Bashir opens Friday in select theaters
There's so much to like about Waltz With Bashir that the weak elements are all the more troublesome. When the images of war and absurdity speak for themselves, they are imaginative investigations of the perplexing nature of memory and the unfathomable inhumanity of war. But the authorial voice is ever-present and condescending, burying the movie's genius.
Writer-director Ari Folman is tackling delicate subject matter, which may be the reason he has trouble embracing the chaos that I think would make Waltz so much better. Nominated for a foreign film Oscar this year, this is a Big Idea movie about the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, and Folman's noble goal is to offer a picture of teenage Israeli soldiers who become cogs in a war machine they don't understand. To his credit, Folman does not flinch from portraying the atrocities they committed, especially in the film's jarring conclusion.
After a startling, frightening title sequence, the film begins as Boaz, a friend of Folman, calls him to a bar to talk about a recurring nightmare he's been having. Boaz has decided his nightmare is about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. Because they are both Israeli veterans of that war, he thinks Folman might help him decode it.
But Folman draws a blank. He doesn't have recurring nightmares, flashbacks or even any concrete memories about the war. In an attempt to provoke some memories, he decides to interview friends and former comrades. The film that results is made up of these interviews and—much more excitingly—expressionistic visualizations of the stories the subjects tell.
Unpacking exactly what kind of movie Folman has made is tricky. Waltz is a documentary and a work of investigative journalism. It is also an animated curio with frequent bursts of expressionistic brilliance—I haven't been wowed by animation this much since I was a kid. Folman plays himself; or, more accurately, he voices an animated character who is also a filmmaker named Folman. If the film weren't animated, I would be more comfortable simply saying he plays himself, but there's a weird distance between Folman the person and Folman the animated entity. Similarly, the stylistic conceits of the film pose questions about its relationship to the documentary form. Does the obligation (or responsibility) of historical accuracy and context that typically applies to works of journalism and documentary apply to Folman's boldly schizophrenic creation?
I believe that Folman can answer that question however he likes. But I wish that he answered it differently. He is dedicated to providing what I found to be excessive context, via talking heads and voiceover narration that interrupts the dramatic force of the film. The visual style packs a wallop when it's kinetic, but it's distractingly stiff when the drawings portray interviews or conversations, which unfortunately clutter up much of the movie.
Folman is determined to evoke the feeling of the period and the war, but he's hemmed in by an obligation to give his viewer historical context (which could have been handled in the opening conversation at the bar, not in fits and starts throughout the film). Voiceover narration (provided by Folman and his interviewees), and the unpardonably frequent and bland interruption of talking heads, sap the film of its emotive visual impact. Arguably, Folman's themes—the moral vacuum that war creates, the misleading maze of memory—would be better served by instilling a feeling in the viewer of becoming unmoored to any recognizable experience.
In a scene ripe with potential, a soldier wanders off of a peaceful street into an abandoned airport, where all the arrivals and departures have been frozen for an indeterminate amount of time. When he turns back to the street, chaotic fighting has broken out. It feels like a familiar nightmare, and it is also completely plausible. The war has frozen the everyday comings and goings of life in the airport, while it has made time jagged and unpredictable in the street. This is a simple, powerful juxtaposition. It doesn't need a voice laid over it, walking us through it.
I am wowed by the film I imagine carving out of Waltz With Bashir, one without all the expository signposts, one that would terrify me and swim around in my mind for days afterward. I would be consumed by the film's ideas and imagery—and both would be amplified—if the images ever spoke for themselves.
Maybe it would be too ethically and politically troublesome to make a film about this ongoing conflict that didn't explain its nightmarish scenes of violence and dissonant notes of beauty. Perhaps Folman's decision to make an essentially levelheaded examination of his experience has deeper moral integrity than an 80-minute head trip would. But as a viewer, if forced to make the decision between a filmmaker who is artistically inventive and one who has ethical integrity, I will always choose the former.