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Film Review: ‘1982’ Presents a Familiar But Powerful Childhood Memoir

About a year ago, I went over a few of the dangerous political upheavals and conflicts going on in the Middle East in the early 1980’s to question why Patty Jenkins and Geoff Johns thought it was a good idea to bring those up in service of an insensitive and ultimately pointless subplot in Wonder Woman 1984. One that I did not mention at that time, but certainly left equally lasting consequences for the region and for at least one filmmaker will not be treated glibly, was the Israel-Lebanon War that broke out almost exactly forty years ago today when the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Lebanon and ended with the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut to Tunis in August. This happened while Lebanon was dealing with a semi-civil war between Christian and Muslim nationalists that had been escalating since the mid-70’s. The PLO openly supported the Muslims and the IDF aided the Christians, and eventually, this support spilled over into direct attacks between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The PLO started launching attacks on Israeli citizens living abroad in places like Europe, which prompted retaliatory air strikes from the IDF on PLO-controlled areas of Lebanon.

This escalation culminated in nearly 80,000 IDF troops marching into Lebanon to drive the PLO out of the region entirely. It did not take long for the IDF to achieve air superiority and ground control of the entire Bekaa Valley, which gave them the advantage when they encircled Beirut. An uneasy ceasefire was negotiated a few weeks later after the PLO suffered heavy losses, but that didn’t last long and both sides of the conflict committed heinous war crimes between July and August too numerous and upsetting for me to recap here. On the 21st of August, the PLO retreated from Beirut for Tunis under the protection/supervision of French peacekeeping forces, resulting in Syria dominating Lebanon and effectively turning it into a satellite state until it devolved into a bloody civil war at the start of the 21st century.

Tricycle Logic

In the middle of this conflict is 1982, a semi-autobiographical childhood story from director Oualid Mouaness, centering on a young boy pretty clearly modeled after himself named Wissam (played by Mohamad Dalli), struggling to express his feelings to his class crush Joanna (played by Gia Madi) at their Quaker school near Beirut. The fact that a guarded checkpoint separates where they live is of minor concern to the young man, who will do just about anything, including enlisting the help of his unreliable friend Majid (played by Ghassan Maalouf), to get him to overcome those physical barriers and the mental barrier of his own shyness to confess his crush on her. These children are not aware at first of the looming invasion that the adults know with mounting dread is coming, in particular, their teacher Yasmine, played by the film’s most recognizable star Nadine Labaki. Conflict arises when her apolitical hope for a swift end to the fighting at any cost runs into the idealism of her colleague and secret lover Joseph (played by Rodrigue Sleiman). But despite this anxiety tearing them apart inside, they still have a job to do, running a school and tending to the young students while disaster is just on the horizon.

If you’re thinking to yourself “Hey, this reminds me of Belfast,” you’re definitely not wrong to compare the two, though I would argue that 1982 is a better movie than Kenneth Branagh’s would-be-but-not-quite Oscar darling. This has a superior command of tone, a more disciplined narrative focus (the film takes place during a single day), and even its more outré creative flourishes are more successfully executed here, including an unexpected detour into animation that highlights Wissam’s artistic talent as a vessel for his vivid imagination. D.P. Brian Rigney Hubbard is adept at using closeups to properly capture the emotional beats of these characters of dramatically different ages and perspectives without over-relying on them like a lot of childhood roman à clefs sometimes fall victim to. The sound design from Rana Eid is some of the most successful and precise simulation of peripheral warfare I’ve heard since The Cave, with the sounds of warplanes and bombs progressively getting louder and more frequent as an anxiety-ratcheting marker for how much closer the war is to encroaching on the school. This kind of craftsmanship brings forth one of the undeniable truths of these situations that a lot of war films seem nervous to convey: the brunt of war is felt by the women and children left to pick up the pieces, not the soldiers toughing it out on the front lines.

The film’s screenplay struggles a bit to merge the sweet childhood romance of Wissam’s story with the more harrowing experiences of Yasmine preparing for the worst, as the obliviousness of the kids in this story almost diffuses the tension to a degree that doesn’t break as hard as it should when the fighting starts. Thank goodness, then, for Labaki filling in those gaps with her ease of interacting naturally with its juvenile cast and carrying the emotional weight of some of the smaller conflicts (there’s an early subplot about her brother joining the fight that fades away too quickly) with her performance. She powerfully conveys stoic composure gradually fraying as the film hurtles toward its inevitable shattering conclusion, which along with the prodigious visual presentation, goes a long way to making up for the occasionally rote dialogue and scene-to-scene connective tissue.

1982 was the Lebanese entry for the Best International Feature at the 92nd Oscars two years ago but didn’t make it among an unusually strong competition and a guaranteed loss to Parasite. Luckily, with its theatrical release in the United States finally upon us, we don’t have to waste our mental energy pondering its awards prospects. We can instead just appreciate this modest-but-affecting film as a welcome chronicle of a man looking back on what should have been a pleasant childhood memory that ended up stolen from him by cruel forces outside his control.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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