The most artful film of the year, Waltz with Bashir works equally well as a potent anti-war film and as a creative examination of the psyche and the nature of memory. A mature work of significant psychological depth, Ari Folman’s animated autobiographical documentary is visually striking from the get-go, as twenty-six slavering dogs tear through Tel Aviv in a recreation of an ex-soldier's recurring dream. It's a prelude to the exploration of subjective experience in imagery of memory, dream, and hallucination, all made more vivid by the gone but not forgotten trauma of war.
The narrative thrust of the film recreates Folman's investigation of his time in Lebanon in the summer of 1982. A member of the Israeli Defense Force, Folman fought alongside other teenage soliders—some of them his childhood friends—playing their part, out of national obligation, in the confusion of another nation's civil war. Folman, unable to reconstruct the events of this time, consults a psychiatrist friend. In particular, Folman is troubled that the details of the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre are "not stored in [his] system," and the psychiatrist warns him about the unreliability of the mind: "If some details are missing, our memory fills in the holes with things that never happened...Memory takes us where we need to go."
Though the therapist speaks of defense mechanisms protecting us from going to dark places, Folman chooses to take the comment literally, and goes in pursuit of his memory, seeking out his oldest friends to sort out the past. In episodic fashion and with flexible style, Folman explores different perspectives of the shared common experience of the modern ground warrior, one Folman concludes is cruel and absurdly pointless. The film is psychologically acute in its rendering of PTSD and survivor’s guilt, expertly rendering the personal and the political as sadly inseparable.
The stories Folman collects reveal the masculine psychology used to drum up morale from the ranks of teens pressed into service, and the creeping lifelong stress fracture that service caused. One old friend, Carmi—who everyone thought would be a nuclear physicist—is now a retired falafel salesman living in Holland. Carmi describes the eighteen-year-old virgin he was as a "nerd," like everyone else wanting to prove he could be "strong and capable." As he talks, a few yards away Carmi's son plays in the snow with his toy rifle.
Another friend, Ronny, laments, "I wasn't the hero type." The Israeli soldiers had been programmed to accept a mission of searching for wanted Palestinians, but disillusionment came early and often, as when a whole family is shot up inside a Mercedes, a product of nocturnal landfall panic that only comes into focus at daybreak (itself a metaphor for the middle-aged Folman's dawning realizations). War comes to be known as an experience of temporary insanity, which stripped these young men of their humanity and their empathy—first in killing and then in dispassionate disposal of bodies. After that, many could never go home again, the collateral damage and survivor's guilt haunting their attempts at normalcy.
While a PTSD expert can and does explain survival by depersonalization—seeing as if a camera until the camera "breaks"—Folman can and does use cinematic techniques, and primarily animation to have it both ways: suggesting the characters' dissociative states (including Folman's confessed distancing) while making his recreations vital. The images of dissociation pile up: one ex-soldier, Shmuel, recalls people watching the action right before their eyes as if it were a movie, andanother remarks, "It was like being on an LSD trip" (we also see an arcade video game called "Desert Patrol"). Only animation could heighten the unfathomable to the proper level of subjective surreality; live action simply wouldn't do—until it does, in the film's final, potent moments.
Images of dark beauty share the screen with remarkably sensitive "acting" from the animated figures (all but two of the voices heard in the film are authentic, the other two people replaced by necessity with actors). Unlike the rotoscoping employed for the characters in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Folman's team used Flash animation to illustrate free-hand from video reference. In both dreamlike and realistic idioms (bridged in a way by the satirical rock music), art director David Polonsky and director of animation Yoni Goodman excel. In one scene, a soldier has a reverie of being embraced, on the dark seas of "fear" and "feelings," by a giant naked woman; in another, a soldier's breathing subtly intensifies as he takes in the sight and sound of mourning mothers at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The investigation of memory turns inevitably to investigation of that massacre, which occured in the wake of the assassination of Lebanon's newly elected president, Bashir Gemayel. Though the ground warriors stood by and literally watched the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces, the Israeli military and government figuratively looked the other way, a defense mechanism in the face of their offense (television correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai recalls the stonewalling of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, for one). For the part of the ground soldiers, their relative powerlessness is cold comfort: there's plenty of guilt to go around. In Folman's film, they can rehabilitate the tragic witness they bore with fresh testimony. Paired with potent, revalatory animated montage, this belated honesty makes Waltz with Bashir a must-see that instantly rises to the highest ranks of war movies.