War Story by the young American filmmaker Mark Jackson starts off in a very impressive way. We see Catherine Keener as a traumatized war-photographer returning from Libya after the killing of her colleague. She checks into a Sicilian hotel and completely isolates herself. She ignores her incessantly ringing cell phone and for no apparent reason starts to rearrange the furniture in her hotel room. Hardly any lines of dialogue are spoken in those contemplative opening scenes, which are set to a haunting score. We form an understanding of this woman’s suffering, despite not knowing anything about her.
Unfortunately, the film never manages to really kick on after the opening. Before the screening at Deauville, the director addressed the audience in fluent French and paid tribute to his father, a Vietnam-veteran who is about to fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing the halls of the Sorbonne in Paris. This moment was more moving than anything that followed. War Story remains trapped in the realm of interesting and thought-provoking, but never manages to develop any real tension or emotional punch.
The pace is very slow as Keener's character soon meets an illegal immigrant (played by the French actress Hafsia Herzi) who reminds her of a young girl she once photographed. In a selfish act of altruism, she decides to help the girl to get a desperately needed abortion in order to overcome her own issues. The debates surrounding war photography and the unbelievable risk these people take re fascinating and, particularly in light of recent events, topical, but Jackson doesn't concern himself too much with them. The exception is a beautifully shot cameo by Sir Ben Kingsley as Catherine Keener’s mentor. The main discussion of the film surrounds the more universal themes of grief, guilt and trauma.
The main reason, why the film nevertheless kind of works, is the brilliant central performance by Catherine Keener, one of the very best actresses working in American cinema today. Here she plays against type; we barely see her luminous smile or hear her memorable voice. The film completely relies on the actress to make the narrative work, and fortunately she delivers. Keener manages to convey extremely complex emotions through the simple act of taking a puff on a cigarette. The screen never feels empty when she occupies it. Her performance and the interesting subject matter make War Story worth 90 minutes of your time, but there are definitely much better films to be made about this.