Beasts Of No Nation


Review by Willard Manus

There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers fighting in various wars around the world. BEASTS OF NO NATION tells the story of one of them, a West African kid named Agu. Though the character is fictional–-he’s played by Abraham Attah, a 13-year-old first-time actor from Ghana, where BEASTS was shot-–its origins have their roots in a novel by Uzodinma Iweala.

Iweala, a Nigerian writer/doctor who treated many child soldiers while serving in Africa for the United Nations, published “Beasts of No Nation” in 2005; it won numerous awards and was translated into twelve languages. Now Cary Joji Fukunaga, a writer/director responsible for such films as Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and TV’s True Detective, has turned Iweala’s book into a big, bloody, heart-rending movie that will hopefully shock mankind’s conscience into taking action against those generals and warlords who use children to fight their battles, if only because they can easily be manipulated and exploited, turned into tiny but ruthless killing machines.

Agu is something of a universal child soldier, one who could be anywhere from nine to twelve years old and hails from a generic African nation. By not having to deal with specific details, Fukunaga was able to focus on Agu’s story, his journey from an ordinary kid, part of a loving family, to orphaned foot-soldier in a deadly civil war.
Much of BEAST’S success can be attributed to Attah and the other actors, especially Idris Elba, who plays The Commandant, a warlord who finds Agu in a dark forest (his family having been killed in the civil war) and takes him under his wing. Elba, who starred in The Wire and the bio-pic Mandela, turns in a magnetic and memorable performance as the Commandant, a complex character who is part-father to his AK-47-toting flock, and part-Fagin.

“It was very attractive to tackle a character who is so multi-layered,” said Elba in an interview. “The Commandant has multiple agendas. His short-term goal is to strengthen his small army and take over as much territory as he can. But he also sees himself as a leader destined for something more. He’s very regimented and he runs his faction of child soldiers that way. A lot of it was about exploring the mechanics of leadership, charisma and respect.”

The Commandant does not suffer from any attacks of conscience because “his moral system is the very narrow moral system of war, in which the ends always trump the means, no matter how cruel. I think if asked, he would simply justify what he was doing because he’s a soldier and soldiers don’t back down till they die–-and he believes he is a very good soldier.”

BEASTS is a long, intense, complex movie; there are three different armies in it: the government army, the rebels and the Kamajors (a primitive, painted tribe). They’re all fighting for different things in different ways; it makes for some confusion, but one thing does emerge clearly from the fog of war: the disillusionment of both Agu and the Commandant.

The latter, betrayed by his conniving superiors, ends up a deflated, destroyed man. Agu, though, manages to dig deep within himself, find the strength and courage to start a new life.