by Richard von Busack
Samuel Fuller had firsthand experience of war, but working as an honest B-filmmaker, he rarely had the scope to reproduce what he saw. Kubrick made war movies with great scope, but without overwhelming humanity; Kurosawa had sweep and humanity, but always found himself dazzled by the bushido code. The former Bay Area director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s epic new film Beasts of No Nation shows that he already deserves placement with those three names. Playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival before opening on October 16 on Netflix at the same time as limited theatrical engagement, this is a towering fictional film about the boy soldiers used as shock troops throughout Africa from the Second Congo War to the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.
In the highlands of an unnamed African country, there’s a buffer zone between government forces and armed rebels. When the barrier falls and the soldiers arrive, the family of the boy Agu (Abraham Attah) is split apart. Soon Agu is forced into the army of a charismatic psycho called “The Commandant” (Idris Elba). In the mountains, in a fortress of bamboo huts guarded by heavy guns, Agu is brutalized into becoming a soldier.
Fukunaga does what’s done in the best war movies—he balances the sense of pity with the sensationalism, and unveils a ghastly irony when exposing the character of the top brass. (The head of the rebels is a venal little Goebbels of a man.) The African bush looks as verdant as Henri Rousseau’s forest—Fukunaga amplifies the colors into hallucination, to reflect the horrors Agu sees and perpetrates.
Attah is a tremendous young actor, and one wonders why Fukunaga thought that relatively heavy narration was needed to explain his easily understood emotions. This is the first great film on a horror subject, these children’s crusades during the ever-continuing Great War of Africa. Yet the movie is quite universal. The brutal training is a form of what all soldiers undergo; in a flooded trench, crimson with mud from the red African soil, we see a mirror of the Western Front.
Attah is startling, but the movie is really held together by Elba’s Commandant, a well-rounded, fascinating observation of a war criminal who is ultimately all too human—whose self-delusion about being the savior of the constitution survives the loss of his cause. Working as producer, director, cinematographer and scriptwriter (adapting the Nigerian-born novelist Uzodinma Iweala’s novel), Fukunaga surpasses even his innovative version of Jane Eyre and of the odyssey Sin Nombre. He’s clearly a master filmmaker, worthy of this vast and tragic subject.