Beasts of No Nation

We probably wouldn’t be able to fight wars without eighteen year olds. At that age we are entering our physical peak while still retaining a certain amount of mental malleability that makes us open to indoctrination. We are anxious to be a part of something, and of course utterly convinced of our own invincibility. Basic training doesn’t really work on someone in their twenties.
Now imagine lowering that age of indoctrination to eleven or twelve. Actually you don’t have to imagine it. It happens all the time, most notably in insurrections in sub-Saharan Africa. There are countless magazine and newspaper articles and memoirs published that describe the experience. There are even novels. One of them, by Uzodinma Iweala has been made into this movie.
Beasts of no Nation is about a young boy from an unnamed village in an unnamed country in West Africa. There is a civil war raging in the country and everyone in the village knows that the fighting is coming. Agu, played by Abraham Attah in his first role, is a good if somewhat mischievous boy. Even at his tender age he is showing signs of being a leader. The family is poor but getting by with some of Agu’s schemes.
The war comes, however, and Agu’s mother is sent away and his father and older brother are killed. On the run, Agu encounters a troop of rebels led by a man only referred to as Commandant, played by the incomparable Idris Elba. The Commandant takes Agu in and trains him as a soldier, teaching him the art of atrocity and dragging him across lines that can never be uncrossed.
The acting here is pretty incredible, starting with Abraham Attah. Even as his innocence and humanity are being stripped from him, you never stop believing that this is a kid. He has a very open face and a winning smile, which you don’t see much beyond the first third of the film. For a first time actor it is an impressive performance. In fact all the actors playing boy soldiers do a terrific job.
But the best performance is Idris Elba’s. He struts around in front of his charges like a demented scoutmaster, inspiring trust, loyalty and even love. Elba uses every ounce of his considerable charisma to make this monster of a character likeable. It is one of the best performances of the year.
Other aspects of the film are lacking, however. The script is somewhat unfocused. It was written by Cary Fukunaga, who also directed and served as director of photography. Tonally, he seems to have been going for a combination of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, it falls apart at the end and not in a good way like in the end of Apocalypse Now. At over two hours the film is too long.
On the plus side the script is not preachy. I don’t think he really needed to convince anyone that the practice of making children into soldiers is evil.
The photography is pretty good overall. Fukunaga went with a largely desaturated look, almost all the color is drained from the images. This flattens the picture. There are moments, however, when Agu’s life is about to change where the color comes back in and the ambient, droning music by Dan Romer swells and the rest of the soundtrack becomes distorted. That actually is an effective technique.
Beasts of No Nation is currently in limited release in theaters. But it is also available on Netflix, which financed the production. This is a growing model for distribution of independent films, but Beasts of No Nation is by far the most high profile example.

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