“Older men declare war. But it is the young that fight and die.” While Herbert Hoover’s words apply to warfare in general, they seem particularly relevant in regards to the child soldier crises in parts of Africa. The tragic plight of these children is at the center of director/writer/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga’s film, “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), which follows the life of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young man from West Africa whose life is torn apart by a violent civil war.
Agu’s voice narrates much of the film, and he begins by explaining that, since his country is at war, the schools have shut down, forcing him and his friends to find ways to amuse themselves. As Agu and his friends roam around their village, the viewer sees glimpses of the pervasive conflict and poverty that plague Agu’s world. At the same time, the film also shows a child who is perfectly content with his surroundings, largely oblivious to the significance of these problems. In many ways, Agu has a great life. He has a tight-knit family comprised of loving, thoughtful parents, and a fun-loving older brother, all of whom gather around the dinner table in an early scene to share food and laughter. Then, suddenly, invading soldiers storm the village, turning it into a combat zone.
As the battle intensifies, Fukunaga’s camerawork suddenly becomes frenetic and disorienting, creating an adrenaline-fueled atmosphere. Indeed, this feverish cinematography continues throughout the film’s many action scenes, mirroring the chaotic, crazed nature of warfare.
Before long, Agu finds himself alone and scared, forced to flee into the jungle. There, he runs into a guerilla battalion of soldiers, some of whom look no older than Agu himself. The Commandant (Idris Elba) who leads the battalion takes advantage of Agu’s vulnerability and convinces Agu to join him.
At first, Agu appears conflicted as the battalion battles across the country, killing, raping and looting along the way. Before too long, Agu’s narrative voice falls into relative silence — almost as if he is living in a bad dream. Fukunaga emphasizes this nightmarish mood with hallucinatory color effects, dissolves and low, ominous tones — the type which fans of season one of “True Detective” (2014 – present), another project directed by Fukunaga, might recognize.
Still, the film has its deficiencies. For one, it spends little to no time delving into the political failures that have given rise to myriad civil wars and child soldier crises. Furthermore, the film can be a bit melodramatic, especially in one scene, in which Elba somewhat overacts in his role as the Commandant rallying his troops before a skirmish.
Still, Elba — who also co-produced the film — largely succeeds at playing a manipulative warlord who exudes confidence and swagger, which manifests itself in everything from his clothing to the intonations of his voice. This bravado, however, takes the place of any real charisma and makes the Commandant appear immature and amateurish. These qualities are even further accentuated when the Commandant meets with his faction’s leader (Jude Akuwudike), who appears to be far more refined and intelligent in comparison.
“Beasts of No Nation” is the first Netflix original movie which subscribers can stream online. This means that the film is only being shown at a handful of theaters around the country, so most people will not be able to view this film on the silver screen. This is a shame since, as previously mentioned, the film is a visual spectacle featuring gorgeous aerial shots of beautiful countrysides and intense, heart-pumping action sequences that cannot truly be appreciated on a computer or television screen.
That aside, this is a strong American film debut for Cary Fukunaga, who previously directed the Mexican indie thriller, “Sin Nombre” (2009) and the British romantic drama, “Jane Eyre” (2011), both of which were critically acclaimed. At only 38, Fukunaga’s future appears bright, as he seems to wield both the camera and the pen with profound skill.
While the film is often heartbreaking and violent, it still manages to create a certain sense of hope and grace, largely due to the film’s beautiful cinematography and Attah’s sympathetic, nuanced performance. Through Agu, the film successfully portrays the consequences of a tragic, yet under-reported humanitarian disaster. Hopefully this film will bring much needed attention to the issue.