Beasts of No Nation
Somewhere in Africa, a civil war is raging. It hasn't reached Agu (Abraham Attah) yet, or his family---father, mother, sister, brother---but they are living in a supposedly safe zone where the protection breaks down very quickly. His father, a teacher, doesn't want to separate the family, but has no choice when the last jammed car is leaving, and there is only room for his wife and their baby girl. He pays them all his money, and then tries to flee from the erupting violence, unsuccessfully. Big brother is gone, and suddenly Agu is all alone in the jungle.
He is captured by the rebel forces, who at first use him as a servant, but later, begin to brainwash him about the righteousness of their cause. The Commandant (Idris Elba) takes a personal interest in young Agu, and pairs him with “Striker,” a veteran boy soldier, and soon young Agu learns to shoot, and travels with the rebel battalion as one of them. His initiation is stark and brutal: kill a captured enemy soldier. After that, Agu is ready to kill in battle.
At first, there is some semblance of sense to this war, as the Commandant is in radio communication with his superiors. The ragged battalion is forced to live off the land, and make no money, and are prevented from enjoying the “spoils” normally associated with marauders. But they dutifully ambush an enemy convoy when ordered to, and take a bridge leading to the capitol, with heavy losses. But they remain a terror of a fighting unit, mostly because of the strong leadership of the Commandant, who not only takes the time to know his troops, he gives them pep talks before battle. He even prays with them. He is mentor, captain, spiritual advisor, and father figure all rolled into one. But he has a dark side, as well, as Agu finds out one night when they have captured a barracks, and the Commandant invites Agu to his room for some comfort. This bothers Agu so much that he becomes a participant in the troop's increasing drug usage. When they finally arrive at the capital, they are a depleted, weary, and compromised group, which their “Supreme Commander” recognizes immediately. So he orders the Commandant to stand down, and gives the troop to his second in command, demoting the Commandant to a desk job. And all this time he thought he was angling for General.
The Commandant asks for one more night with his men, which he utilizes as an excuse to get them back out in the field, under his command once more, but now they are merely an unattached vigilante group, rapacious and lawless, and eventually the remaining battalion members grow weary of the dark façade, and they all leave at once, including Agu.
But now what? Can a mere child overcome all the trauma of war that he has seen and done? PTSD is hardly the word for a boy in an orphanage who can't seem to connect with the other boys, or his teachers, either. Yes, war is Hell, as General Sherman famously said. But for Agu, it was a special kind of Inferno that not even Dante's could adequately define.
Both Idris Elba and Abraham Attah deliver powerful performances, and their characters will haunt you long after you've left the theater.
Questions for Discussion:
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas