November 25, 2015 -- This searing drama, based on the novel of the same name by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, tells the story of a young boy forced to become a soldier in a civil war in Africa. It has all the markings and gritty reality of a true story, but the name of the country where it takes place is not given. It is a universal story of the senseless horror of war.
The central character is a clever young boy, Agu (played by Abraham Attah of “Out of the Village”) who lives with his family in a safe buffer zone in a war torn country. We see him leading a group of other boys, playing games, and selling an empty television to a soldier, calling it a television of imagination.
But then the buffer zone is invaded by rebels. Agu's father arranges for his wife and a younger brother and sister of Agu to be taken to the capital, but he doesn't have enough money to save himself, Agu, an older brother and his own father. All are murdered by the invading troops except for Agu, who is able to escape on foot into the jungle.
Agu wanders for days in the jungle until he is found by a battalion of fighters, led by The Commandant (played by Idris Elba of “Pacific Rim” and who is also a producer of this film). The Commandant sees that this boy is no fighter, but he thinks he might be useful. He puts him to work carrying ammunition, under the supervision of a child soldier, Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) who is so traumatized by war he cannot speak.
In the pecking order of the battalion, Agu is at the bottom. In order to become a soldier, and get more food, he must undergo an initiation, somewhat like a Christian baptism. He is put into a shallow grave and is reborn. He then must pass through a brutal gauntlet. Another child who fails to get through the gauntlet is murdered for his failure.
As a final test, Agu must murder a man with a machete. The prisoner, a bridge engineer, pleads for his life, but Agu and another child soldier hack him to death. The battalion fights on, looting, raping and murdering their way towards the capital city. The Commandant is like a father to the boys. He is charismatic and charming at times, but he is also sinister in the ways he uses and abuses them.
The Commandant dreams of power. He has been promised a promotion to general if he takes the next city, which he does, but the rebel leader decides the Commandant has become a political liability and demotes him. The Commandant, perhaps thinking he will have to pay for his war crimes, takes his battalion into the bush and tries to establish his own territory. Another man who had been promoted to commander, dying from an assassin's bullet, tells Agu that it has all been for nothing.
While the film does have a hopeful ending that is not as terrible as the horror of what has gone before, it is the savagery that haunts me. This is a very powerful, emotional and sad film about the horror of war and the loss of innocence suffered by these child soldiers. It is one thing to read about child soldiers in Africa, but this film lets you live it.
Powerfully written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) this film contains ground breaking, uncompromising performances by Elba, Abraham Attah and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. This is one of the best films of 2015, and it was not made by a movie studio, it was made by Netflix. The times they are changing. This film rates an A.
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