A tin pot “army” visits murder on a remote, Eden-like African village. A ragtag “National Defense Force” attacks the tin pots then, obscenely, descends on a farming community and shoots husbands, moms, children. Senseless, horrible.
And compelling. For two reasons: “Beasts of No Nation” conveys the brutality and pointlessness of the endless internecine conflicts we read about. Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Gabon, Zambia, Nigeria — the shorter list would be African nations not at war for secession, independence, diamonds, oil or separatism. The movie, set in an unnamed West African nation, goes much deeper, telling the story through the eyes of a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who is scooped up by paramilitary brigands after his father and older brother are shot dead by the latest marauding band of soldiers.
“Beasts of No Nation,” adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name, brings to mind “Blood Diamond” (2006) but has greater impact and fewer big names. Idris Elba as the charismatic Commandant is the other reason this movie is so stunning. He is the leader of a pack of child soldiers and as such he morphs as need be from Yoda, to coach, to executioner to Father Goose. Elba is the embodiment of the swaggering leader who fears not bullets nor his fellow man but loss of stature, humiliation. He is the toughest and the weakest and he finds solace with the weaker still.
Abraham Attah, age 11, is equally extraordinary as a sweet young boy, well loved by his family, who becomes a dazed conscript, then a coked-up fighter and soon a murderer himself.
The story ends on a hopeful note — not merely hopeful but believable — which is a testament to the resilience of children as much as this war, that war and all wars are a demonstration of the pigheadedness of the adults in the room.
This is Netflix’s first swing at an original, full-length film and the result is Oscar-worthy. It is a scandal beyond words that Elba was not nominated for an Academy Award.