'Theatre of War' Aims Big But Misfires

Despite lofty ambitions, 'Theatre of War' fails to get to the heart of its difficult subject matter.

Gema Films

Growing up in the UK, we’re taught about World War I and World War II and even more recent wars, like Vietnam. But one that is rarely discussed is the Falklands War (aka the Malvinas War), a two-month conflict between Britain and Argentina that took place in 1982.

Whether this is due to embarrassment over what is now largely seen as a futile squabble between two world leaders or simply because of how recent the war is in our history is up for debate. Yet the trauma carried by those who fought on both sides is very real, leaving plenty of room for a fascinating documentary.

So, it’s disappointing that Theatre of War fails to get to the heart of this trauma. Lola Arias‘ film lays out its intentions from the beginning, staging a re-creation of a battle that’s stayed with these soldiers since that day. After this startling opening, however, Theatre of War quickly loses its grip on the story as it becomes apparent that the film is more interested in empty gimmicks than genuinely confronting what these people have been through.

Anybody who’s seen The Act of Killing, or any number of docs that involve traumatic reenactments, will get the idea here. Veterans on both sides of the war get together to stage re-creations of pivotal moments, all of which are based on the personal experiences of those involved. And it’s all in preparation for the big final production that closes the film combining fact and fiction, history and theater.

The concept has been done before, but that’s not to say it can’t be done effectively. Unfortunately, these rehearsals and reenactments, aside from the chilling scene that opens the film, are mostly stiff and awkward, at best. And at worse, they’re a series of overly long sequences which fail to reveal anything meaningful about these people’s experiences.

Compared to The Act of Killing, where reenactments are used as an insight into the deranged minds of those who committed the worst atrocities during the Indonesian genocide, Theatre of War appears unsure of what it’s trying to actually say with these vignettes. They’re certainly uncomfortable to watch, but only occasionally in an intended way. There is some solid material here, but you get the sense that Arias doesn’t know what to do with it all. If the intention was to help these people come to terms with the futility of the war they fought in, the mark appears to have been missed.

A behind-the-scenes segment in the middle of the film suggests that the British veterans are frustrated with the whole process, with several of them questioning why they’re even doing this. Granted, this conversation feels oddly staged, which leaves further questions over why this was even included in the final film.

As the film goes on, a final reenactment is planned, leading to some genuinely enlightening conversations between the soldiers and the actors playing them. The build-up to the finale is the only time Theatre of War feels honest, where the gimmicks are stripped away for a moment and replaced with real people recounting some of their most intense memories. These genuine discussions about the effects of the war, where the actors are seen preparing for their roles, are an excellent way of quietly processing trauma. However, without spoiling the ending, there is a disappointing lack of closure and you’re left wondering what it was all for.

Sprinkled throughout are a handful of other captivating ideas — a friendship formed between veterans on opposite sides makes for particularly compelling viewing — but these moments are few and far between. And as the reenactments shift towards some bizarre, surreal imagery (the strangest of which involves masks of Margaret Thatcher and Leopoldo Galtieri), you find yourself wishing to just hear what these people have to say. How did they feel about the war then? How has that changed since? What perspective have they gained from working on this doc? Theatre of War frustratingly sidesteps all these questions.

Perhaps the most fascinating area glanced over by the film is the Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers used by the British military throughout history. Gurkhas are known for their fearlessness and are enthralling to watch in action here. Their involvement in the Falklands alone would make for a worthy documentary, and while their inclusion is welcome, they feel like another bit of potential that isn’t truly fulfilled by this film.

You have to admire Theatre of War for wanting to be more than a simple historical piece, taking big swings in an attempt to understand this messy part of history. The result, however, is a disappointing mixed bag, one that fails to be more than the sum of its parts and struggles with how to frame all the material at its disposal.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.