In March 2012, a radical piece of digital protestation was uploaded on to the Internet with production values as slick as a big screen blockbuster. Made by the American charity Invisible Children, ‘Kony 2012’ exposed the distressing plight of children in Uganda who were coerced into fighting by warlord Joseph Kony, and evangelised about how the best way to stop Kony was to make him famous and force politicians to pay attention. With over 70 million views obtained in 5 days, the video undoubtedly achieved what it set out to do. But as critics quickly pointed out, it was a polemic chiefly built on crudely oversimplified activism.
By contrast, Beasts Of No Nation, a sometimes-devastating drama adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name and directed by Cary Fukunaga, attempts to authoritatively address the distressing reality of child exploitation in developing countries ravaged by civil war. It’s told from the perspective of Agu (Abraham Attah), a lively young lad living with his family in an unnamed West African country where Government troops are engaged in a struggle for supremacy against rebellious mercenaries.
During a drippy opening act, we follow Agu and his friends as they waste time and cause mischief in their local village, amusing local UN soldiers and duping car drivers into giving them money. The threats of impending invasion from one side or the other loom, but for now such qualms have been quashed. Inevitably, however, the clouds of conflict come to pass, and Agu finds his village occupied by forces loyal to the country’s political regime. Panic ensues as civilians duck and cover in a bid to avoid the soldier’s unforgiving aim, and unfortunately, Agu’s father and brother are killed.Following its soft start, Beasts Of No Nation hits hard once the bullets begin to fly. Fukunaga proved his action credentials back in 2009 with his Mexican gang thriller Sin Nombre, and here, acting as both writer/director and DP, he channels that same intensity; gunshots shakily reverberate; explosions echo; the threat of death is petrifyingly palpable.
The fear only becomes more formidable once we meet the cruel but charismatic rebel Commandant (Idris Elba). Naturally, Agu is terrified at first, but having been taken under the Commandant’s wing and swiftly incorporated into his militia’s ranks, he’s soon manipulated into fighting on the frontline as a child soldier.
Fukunaga’s direction is muscular, but also meandering. There’s great strength to be derived from the construct of capturing war through a child’s gaze. Aided by Abraham Attah’s astonishing performance, which effortlessly manages to carry the film’s emotional weight, Beasts Of No Nation is, at times, a tour-de-force of trauma. The handling of violence is remarkably effective – fierce and visceral in the earlier stages, whilst notably more numbing as Agu becomes desensitised to the devastation unfurling around him.Weakness, however, lies in the script’s routine meditation of war’s horror, which fails to transcend cinematic convention just as Blood Diamond did when it tried to tackle the same subject. The plot is inarticulately breezy; the tone regularly fluctuating inconsistently between measured and menacing, especially during the frustratingly unengaged final act that shifts the focus away from Agu and on to Idris Elba’s Kony-like Commandant.
To Elba’s credit, he does succeed in portraying this unhinged warlord with a rich complexity that allows him to be so much more than the larger-than-life character Fukunaga’s script sometimes draws him as; we can clearly see how evil he is, but that doesn’t stop him being a victim in his own right. Had the film been willing to further explore such lines of inquiry, Beasts may have felt like it could make a difference. But in its current form, this is merely a tale of chaos that’s chaotically told.