Foxtrot ★★½

[5]

(excerpted from my review in Cinema Scope)

Maoz has acquired a bit of nuance in the years since Lebanon. In that film, the four-man crew inside the tank (code name: Rhino) was comprised of broad-stroke stereotypes worthy of commedia dell’arte. Sadly, Maoz could not negotiate between satire and realism, resulting in a film that oozed self-importance while offering us, in earnest, the tank driver who couldn’t drive, and the gunner who couldn’t shoot, et cetera. One imagines that Maoz’s overriding point is that Israel, in its permanent state of war, is a nation that squanders its poets and breaks down its sensitive men. (Women don’t figure at all in Lebanon, and very little in Foxtrot.) But individuals who resemble actual human beings might make that point more convincingly.

Some progress is made on this front in Foxtrot. Main soldier character Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) is an artist, so we know that he doesn’t belong in this far-flung shithole, sleeping in a shipping container that is gradually sinking into the ground on one side. Inasmuch as we observe his compatriots, they have no business here either. But neither do the Palestinians who are routinely humiliated at Checkpoint Foxtrot. In what has to be the saddest and most poignant scene in the entire film, an older couple are stopped and asked to exit their car. They are in elegant evening dress, clearly decked out for a special night on the town. While the boys run their IDs, one of them keeping a spotlight in their faces, it begins raining. The woman cries as her gown, hair, and makeup are ruined, and none of these kids even thinks twice about their situation. This is the emotional version of Lebanon’s straight-up murder of the chicken farmer.

But Foxtrot is less concerned with the plight of anonymous Palestinians than with the bourgeois Israeli artists and intellectuals who (accidentally) kill them or, by their fecklessness, allow them to die. Foxtrot has been denounced by Israel’s Culture Minister, Miri Regev, for contributing to “the anti-Israeli narrative” and “incit[ing] the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the guise of art.” As soon as you stop laughing about that last part, let’s stop a minute and think about what Maoz is actually up to. Regev is correct that both films “slander” the IDF, but not for the reasons she thinks. Where she sees immorality, Maoz has actually depicted incompetence, along with a sense of mourning for the vitality of Israeli masculinity, unable to flourish under the yoke of perpetual battle.

Lebanon’s unprepared soldiers become Foxtrot’s useless bureaucrats and the prostrate left. The former's accidental incursion into Syria is replaced with a sudden swerve along the road home in the latter. There are other incidental rhymes and resonances, too many to be coincidental. Maoz seems to be implying that all of Israel’s wars, at least since Lebanon, have been essentially the same, or have really been one long, steady assault on Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations.

There may be some truth to this, but as any Arab filmmaker would tell you, specificity is everything, and there are few greater political gestures in art of any kind than bearing witness to history that is threatened with erasure. Eliding crucial historical distinctions means ignoring the subtle shifts in Israeli policy that have resulted in a long-term Likud power bloc and the collapse of the peace process, and an abandonment of systematic critique on the part of the Israeli left. (Amos Gitai’s films may be boring, but at least they are intellectually rigourous. Maoz is only concerned with high-toned middlebrow respectability. He’s Sam Mendes with tanks.)