Netflix's original film Beasts of No Nation is not simply a personal story of one child's schooling in warfare and death, but a collapsed, expedited look at the creation of a soldier. In the condensed brutality of a war-torn Western African village, carnage moves quickly. What takes years of schooling and social reinforcement to learn in much of Western society: That might makes right; that God is always on our side; and that, admittedly, we may not always do what is right or just, but we will always do what is good for ourselves, is learned in minutes by Agu, a small boy and the film's central character.
After his mother and sister are sent to the capitol to escape an invading military junta that executes the men of his village, Agu flees into the woods, only to be captured by the NDF, a rebel group led by a charismatic, Machiavellian battalion commander referred to only as the Commandant (Idris Elba). The schooling of the boy begins here. In minutes, still in shock from the murder of his father and brother, he is forced to choose between joining the NDF or, most likely, being executed by them. It is minutes between his father and brother being murdered and Agu having to choose between becoming a rebel fighter or death, which is, of course, no choice at all.
Our hegemonic lifestyle, the way we learn to yield to power and contort our bodies, spirits and minds to its influence and, eventually, police our own actions based on that power's properties and values, is taught gradually and over years of interaction. The Commandant is the arbiter of Agu's evolution from boy to soldier and killer.
Of course, the human animal is capable of killing, but it is the learning process of becoming what we would label a cold-blooded murderer that is weighed and considered in Cary Joji Fukunaga's adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name. What is posited via the evolution of Agu into a murderer is that, under the right circumstances, anyone is capable of such a transformation, just as citizens of all nations are willing to kill for their "homeland" and its people, and often in cold-blood and for no other utility than revenge. At one point, the Commandant meets with the NDF's Supreme Commander and is told the true duty of a soldier: obedience. "Everything is obedience," and, as Agu states, in a post-traumatic stupor, "The only way not to be fighting anymore is to be dying," which is, surely, a lesson worth pondering for the upcoming elections.
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga's; writ. Uzodinma Iweala; feat. Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama K. Abebrese
Streaming on Netflix; now showing at Santikos Bijou, 4 stars
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