It would have been easy for “Beasts of No Nation” to offer great moral musings on the redemptive qualities of Western intervention or how things are going to go back to the way they were with no repercussions or how if we stick together we can overcome anything. Wisely, the film does none of this. It offers a bleak, uncompromising, close-to-honest (no film is ever truly honest) look at child soldiers in an unnamed West African nation. And while it is not specifically shocking for anyone aware of the situation, its attention to detail and its refusal to sugarcoat makes it a strong portrait.
Agu (Abraham Atta) is a young boy living with his family in a warm, loving environment. As a war breaks out between government forces and an insurgent uprising, Agu loses his mother and watches his father and brother die. With nowhere else to turn, he is recruited by the rebels and their charming, intense Commandant (Idris Elba). Initially going with them only to survive, young Agu learns the value of camaraderie with his new comrades and the potent release of killing as he helps the rebels murder soldiers, men, women and children. Has he truly become one of them, or is there still that young, innocent boy in there somewhere?
Beautifully shot by cinematographer, writer and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the film does not go for the “crying scene” or the “great moral lesson” scene as so many Oscar-bait movies do (I’m looking at you “The Imitation Game”). It simply focuses on Agu and his journey, telling it exactly as it has happened to thousands of similar children on the African continent. We are not told what to think because the film offers no answers on the evil present in it; we have to come to those conclusions on our own.
Idris Elba shines as the nameless Commandant, portraying him with swagger, loyalty, intensity and charisma. He is able to harness the despair and anger of his “family” to doing the unthinkable: mass murder. One has to wonder what his true motivation is: is it to advance whatever political motivations he claims to be fighting for or is it simply the accumulation of power, the sheer joy of destroying what is valuable to others? The movie seems to point to the later.
Unfortunately, the film does not really show us anything new. It is the story of a child soldier and the men he kills with. That’s it. There are no real twists and turns in the narrative. It does not have as much of an exploitative feel to it as much as a simple story told simply; it is told well, mind you, but very simply.
But “Beasts of No Nation” is an important current affairs film that people should see, especially people who are unaware of the child soldier situation occurring in so many parts of the world. The true value of the film are the themes it presents to the Western world: the sway of violent forces in places without resources, how normally peaceful people are seduced by warmongering leaders, how revolutions start with political aspirations but instead become excuses for mass killing and how innocence is so easily corrupted and no one knows if it can ever be restored. It deserves to be experienced and remembered.