Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story

by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, 2009, Metropolitan Books, 128 pages, $18.00

During the 1982 Lebanon War, Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen entered two Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of West Beirut and massacred the men, women, and children living there. The Israeli army, which had invaded Lebanon as a response to an assassination attempt on one of its ambassadors, permitted the Phalangists to enter the camps and maintained a perimeter during the massacre. Ari Folman was one of the Israeli soldiers on that perimeter, but until 2006 he had suppressed his memories of the event. After a conversation with a fellow veteran triggered a vision of the massacre, Folman set out to rediscover his memories. The movie Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary of his efforts, and Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story is a graphic novel created from that project.

I thought the book was quite good, although I have some reservations about it that I'll talk about in a minute. It plays out like a mystery, with Folman slowly regaining fragments of memories as he talks to the people who were with him during the war, until he finally gets the crucial piece of the puzzle and his memory returns. Don't expect any subplots -- Folman has a single-minded focus on uncovering his own history and does not detour from his path. And don't look for deep characterization, either, as the people that Folman meets primarily serve to provide more exposition. But the writing is terrific in other aspects: the plot deftly builds the suspense and dread as it moves switfly along, and it really imparts the feeling to the reader that young soldiers are scared sh*tless during battles and completely overwhelmed with confusion.

David Polonsky was the art director and chief illustrator for the movie, and the book's art appears to be stills from the film. I initially thought the animation was created using rotoscoping, but our friends at Wikipedia tell me the film used a unique style of animation that is "often confused with rotoscoping, an animation style that uses drawings over live footage, but is actually a combination of Flash cutouts and classic animation." However it was created, it is quite interesting, with strong figures imposed over computery backgrounds. Polonsky does a good job of choosing the moments to use in each panel, and the storytelling flow strengthens the overall mood and feel of the work.

(this image actually comes from the movie,
although a similar image appears in the book)

As I said, it is a good comic book, but I hesitate to recommend it solely because I wonder why it exists when there is another version of the story already out there in movie form. The film recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and has been nominated for an Academy Award; from what I have seen, it looks incredible. Although the creators say that they made both works simultaneously, this story clearly needed to be told as a movie. Furthermore, it looks to me like the animation -- not just the drawings but the movement of the drawings -- is the real "art" of this project.

That said, for those people who want to be able to study the images, have some control over the pace of the story, or perhaps just enjoy reading a solid graphic novel more than watching a movie, by all means go and get the book. You won't be disappointed. The story is powerful and the art is remarkable.

But hey, don't just take my word for it, you can decide for yourself how you want to spend your time and money: read the first twenty-five pages here, and watch the trailer from the movie below:

You can buy the book from the publisher here or from Amazon here: Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.


  1. By the way, isn't the music in that trailer AMAZING? It reminds me of the soundtrack for Escape from New York.

  2. I believe the music for the trailer is "Turn You On" by In the Club.