Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga
For the first time in its revolutionary history, Netflix has produced an original film that will make its debut not only on the streaming service, but in theaters around the country. Not many, mind you, but some. The nation’s largest theater chains, AMC and Cinemark, have had enough of the bullying from digital outlets like Netflix and Amazon Prime. In an effort to fight back, they’ve said “no” to Netflix’s film. But if you can see “Beasts of No Nation” for yourself, put aside the heated conflict about its release and feast your eyes on the powerful images it presents. Based on the 2005 novel of the same name, “Beasts of No Nation” is a poignant reminder of the true costs of war, featuring at least one Oscar-worthy performance. However you choose to see it—see it.
In an unnamed West African country, civil war sweeps through the small, quiet village that Agu (15-year-old Abraham Attah) and his family call home. Thankfully, Agu manages to evade the soldiers’ bullets…only to be captured a few hours later by the opposing side and turned into a child soldier. Following the orders of the Commandant (Idris Elba), Agu and dozens of other boys are trained to kill as they travel through African villages in an effort to eliminate their enemy. But in a civil war where good and bad are relative, the war has no clear end goal. Agu wants to see his family again, but Commandant continues to tell the children that he is their best hope for life.
Abraham Attah could become the second-youngest boy to be nominated for Best Actor…or the youngest to go home with the trophy. That’s special, especially considering he has never actually acted before—in fact, he was discovered playing soccer in his home country of Ghana. The non-actor got training from a former Sierra Leone civil war commander and weapon experts to learn how a child solider would act and shoot. Whatever they did, it worked. Attah shows talent beyond his years. He has a bright future in acting, if he wants it. It helps that his character is so well-written. Director Cary Joji Fukanaga (“True Detective: Season 1”) also adapted the script, and can take some credit for building Agu’s character so thoroughly. Agu grows throughout the film in a way that Attah demonstrates gracefully. And his lines are filled with touching moments of hope, despite the character’s circumstances. As the strict but enigmatic Commandant, Elba pulls from performances like Forrest Whitaker’s in “The Last King of Scotland” to craft his own dictatorial character. There’s nothing wrong with Elba’s performance, but his character doesn’t have the arc that his child soldiers experience. He makes do with the lines he’s been given, but he doesn’t get the chance the show his abilities.
“Beasts of No Nation” is injected with emotion from the start. The pure joy of children’s laughter is displaced by the heart-wrenching sound of whizzing bullets. What starts as a moving portrait of a beautiful family soon turns to a sobering picture of war. Tracking shots follow Agu through a house that he and his fellow soldiers are pillaging for no discernible reason. The screen is plastered with striking images for nearly all of 135 minutes. “Beasts of No Nation” ushers in a new era for the juggernaut Netflix. It’s not to be taken lightly. So again I’ll say…however you choose to see it—see it.