Beasts of No Nation: Crash Course Film Criticism #14

By | December 3, 2019

There are movies about war. And there are movies about kids. But the movies about war starring kids are
more rare. Some are science fiction, like 2013’s Ender’s
Game. Others follow children trying to survive during
wartime, movies like Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun starring a young Christian Bale. Or John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical
Hope and Glory about growing up in London during the Blitz. But even fewer films are about children
who actually participate in war, like a 2015 movie that tackled the real-life issue
of child soldiers. From its gritty, handheld camerawork, to its
charismatic leading performances, this grueling drama is a masterclass in intensely vibrant
and subjective cinema. Let’s dig into Beasts of No Nation. [Intro Music] Beasts of No Nation was a dream project for writer-director Cary Fukunaga. He was fresh off two acclaimed features – 2009’s
Sin Nombre and the 2011 big screen adaptation of Jane
Eyre – as well as his stunning direction of the first
season of True Detective. So Fukunaga was able to cobble together a
tiny budget and haul a crew into the jungles of Ghana to do the near impossible. Based on the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American
author Uzodinma Iweala Beasts of No Nation takes place in a fictional,
nameless, African country torn apart by civil war. Various rebel factions battle the military
and each other for control of the nation, wreaking havoc, slaughtering civilians, and
leaving behind a wake of misery. The story follows a young boy named Agu, played
with incredible focus by Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah. Agu lives with his family in what’s called
the “buffer zone,” a protected safe haven guarded by the United Nations. His life isn’t easy, but he’s sheltered
from the worst parts of the conflict and allowed to maintain a pretty recognizable childhood. He plays with friends, jokes with his older
brother, and does chores for his family. That all changes when the government falls
and the war comes to his doorstep. Almost overnight, Agu’s family is split
apart and his father and older brother are shot in front of his eyes. Agu barely escapes into the vast jungle, where
he’s captured by a battalion of the National Defense Forces. The NDF is a ragtag rebel group made up of
young men and boys, led by a brutal, charismatic man they call the Commandant The Commandant: What is this thing doing here? The Commandant: Who is responsible for
bringing this thing? In a searing performance, Idris Elba inhabits the role of the barbaric, yet fatherly leader
who specializes in indoctrinating child soldiers. The Commandant: Now what are they calling you? Agu: Agu… The Commandant: Oh, you must say it like you are prouder. Agu: Agu. The Commandant: One more time. Agu: Agu! The Commandant: Well, Agu. That is what I’ll be calling you, then. Under the Commandant’s direction, Agu endures
an initiation process that includes killing a captive man with a machete. And he’s forced to submit to the Commandant’s
predatory sexual assault. From there, Agu and his fellow NDF soldiers
follow the Commandant across the country, causing destruction and taking over towns,
until they’re called to the rebel capital and the Commandant is demoted. This begins a downward slide that ends with
most of the child soldiers dead and the rest abandoning the Commandant after he and Agu
hold each other at gunpoint. Rescued by UN peacekeepers, Agu and the other
children wind up in a coastal rehabilitation school, struggling to recognize their own
humanity and recover some sliver of their childhood. It’s an incredibly harrowing story, filled
with both darkness and violence. And Fukunaga’s skill with the language of
cinema makes it a mesmerizing film. From the opening shot, Fukunaga makes a nod
to the fact that what we’re watching is an illusion. That no matter how hard it may be to watch,
it pales in comparison to real life. The film opens with a shot of young African
boys playing soccer in a field. The camera pulls back through an empty television
set. And that TV re-frames the game, presenting
it as if it’s happening on a screen. Just like the film we’re watching! This device, the empty TV set, then becomes
an instrument of the plot used to reveal character. Agu and his buddies try to sell it as “imagination
TV.” They set it up for the local guards and act
out various shows on the other side. It sets Agu up as resourceful, bright, and
funny – all qualities that will be tested by the trials of the story to come. Writer-director Fukunaga, who also acts as
his own cinematographer, uses all the tools of cinema to put us in the perspective of
his young protagonist. Many of the shots, especially early in the
film, are framed from low angles. Agu looks up to his father, his older brother,
and eventually to the Commandant. And so do we. The opening scenes have a vaguely gauzy look,
presenting much of Agu’s home life like a traditional coming-of-age drama – from
the pranks with his brother and the family dinner, to a celebratory church service. The film is patient with these scenes. Fukunaga and his editors, Pete Beaudreau and
Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, give us time to explore Agu’s life, his community, and his deep
connections to his family. Just like Agu, we’re lulled into a false
sense of security by the look, feel, and pacing of these early scenes. But that’s all about to change. Once the war decimates the village, Fukunaga
turns to much more brutal, jarring, and unpredictable techniques to tell the story, which perfectly
mirrors Agu’s experience. The cinematography style becomes more aggressively
handheld, capturing the chaos of the violence. The editing becomes faster too, as Agu first
encounters the shock of war. Through it all, Fukunaga keeps the focus on
Agu and his point of view. We get close-up after close-up of the boy’s
face, followed by shots of what he’s looking at. This classic example of the Kuleshov effect
keeps us tracking his emotions, even as the camera becomes more frenzied. But that’s not the only trick up Fukunaga’s
sleeve. He uses extreme wide shots to help us dive
into Agu’s perspective too. Once Agu escapes from the village and finds
himself deep in the jungle, Fukunaga frames him in extremely wide shots. This presents Agu as a tiny dot in a vast,
dangerous world, emphasizing his insignificance and vulnerability. His life has been wrenched out of the comfort
of a community and a home, and suddenly becomes extremely precarious. Most of the middle of the film is shot in
a realist style, with natural lighting, handheld camerawork, and diegetic sound, or sound whose
source exists within the world of the film. And the effect of this realist style is one
of immediacy – we feel the intensity of each second along with Agu. As he’s captured by the NDF troops, comes
face to face with the Commandant, and becomes one of many child soldiers, he’s forced
to live in the moment. And the moment is often unfamiliar and terrifying. Violence, or the threat of violence, fills
every scene and lurks after each pan or cut. And we are right there with him. Occasionally, though, Fukunaga breaks this
realism to illustrate a big emotional turning point. One instance of this comes after the rebels
take down a convoy of military trucks, and the Commandant decides to complete Agu’s
initiation ritual. Agu, who’s been carrying ammunition for
the troops, is called over. And the Commandant orders him to take the
life of the last remaining enemy. The man is bound, on his knees, begging for
his life. The Commandant gives Agu a machete and talks
about how hard he’ll have to swing it to split the man’s head open. Fukunaga extends the moment, drawing out the
suspense, as the Commandant urges Agu on and the other soldiers watch in silence. The film cuts back and forth between increasingly
zoomed-in close-ups of Agu, and a medium close-up of the captured soldier. When Agu finally swings his machete, the film
goes quiet for a split second. Then one of Agu’s fellow child soldiers,
a boy named Strika, steps forward. He swings his own machete, and joins Agu as
they chop the man to death. At this point, the film moves into slow motion,
and Fukunaga cuts out most of the diegetic sound, replacing it with an echoey, low rumble. This droning sound crescendos as Agu swings
his machete. The camera keeps the boys in frame, with the
Commandant in the background, focusing on their expressionless faces, rather than the
gore at their feet. This whole sequence has the effect of drawing
us into Agu’s intense personal decision. It helps us feel how he’s dissociating
from the violent act to preserve his sanity. Fukunaga uses this heightened reality to let
us absorb the brutality of Agu’s actions and understand their emotional significance. And Fukunaga takes a different approach to
a very similar moment later in the film. When the rebels seize control of an enemy
city, Agu and a small group of child soldiers are clearing a building when they discover
a woman and her two small children hiding in a wardrobe. Beaten down by the violence he’s been forced
to both witness and commit, Agu mistakes the woman for his mother, cries out, and clings
to her. When he discovers his mistake, he reels, crossing
into the next room where Strika is beating one of the captured children. And then he turns back into the main room
and shoots the woman. It’s an intense, psychologically fraught
sequence. Agu’s reality warps and he responds with
the tool he’s been taught to use over and over again: an act of violence. But rather than film it in a traditional way,
by cutting up the sequence, Fukunaga chooses to trap us in the moment with Agu by making
it a continuous steadicam shot. The camera tracks Agu through the entire scene,
in and out of the rooms, as he begins to crack under the pressure that’s been building
up since his own village was destroyed. And because the shot never cuts, we feel
trapped too. Just like him, we’re unable to look away
from the horrors of war, with its many different forms of violence. Another thing to consider when analyzing Beasts
of No Nation is the score by Dan Romer. Much like another war movie we discussed,
Apocalypse Now, there are times when the score starts to feel like something from a science
fiction film. It’s subtle, but powerful in making scenes
and shots feel otherworldly, like Agu is lost and far away from home. Like this isn’t even his version of Earth. It can make us feel like we’re seeing a
parallel version of Agu – like we’re seeing an alternate, dark timeline. And in fact, while the film draws heavily
on real-life experiences of child soldiers, it’s deliberately set in an unnamed, fictional
African country. So in a way, this actually is another world! The film takes on a new language in the final
scenes, too, once Agu has freed himself from the Commandant and been rescued by the UN
troops. At the coastal rehabilitation school, the
filming style settles down. Fukunaga uses much less handheld camerawork,
and the shots last longer. Stylistically, the film becomes more stable,
just like Agu’s world. He has fresh clothes, plenty of food, an education,
and no one pushing him to fight or kill. And yet, he spends time apart from others,
watching the other former child soldiers running into the surf and horse-playing on the beach. In one devastating scene, an aid worker questions
Agu about his experiences. She wants him to begin to articulate what
happened in hopes that he can work his way through it all psychologically intact. When we met Agu in the opening scenes, he
was an expressive, clever, often joyful boy. This Agu is stone-faced, hardened, and cut
off from his own emotions. He doesn’t even come close to smiling. Eventually, he’s able to open up just a
little bit, tears hovering in his eyes. Agu: If I’m telling this to you. Agu: You will think that… Agu:… I am some sort of beast. Agu: Or devil. We get the sense that he has a long way to
go, but also that this might be the first step to recovery. The final shot shows Agu racing into the ocean
with the other boys, chasing and splashing, and maybe – just maybe – reclaiming
a small fraction of the childhood that had been stolen from him. Beasts of No Nation can be a tough movie to
watch, but, in a way, it’s also a deeply compassionate one. Director Cary Fukunaga’s deep grasp of the
tools of cinema keep us anchored in his main character’s perspective in a really artful
way. And the grueling journey makes the sliver
of hope at the end all the more powerful. Next time, we’ll tackle apes, monoliths,
and a deadly computer in one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s
2001: A Space Odyssey. Crash Course Film Criticism is produced in
association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like Origin of Everything, Physics Girl, and
ACS Reactions. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these fabulous people and our
amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

100 thoughts on “Beasts of No Nation: Crash Course Film Criticism #14

  1. HiddenHistory Post author

    Ok but we need one on who killed captain Alex.

  2. NavidIsANoob Post author

    This movie is pure horror. And to imagine that's it's nothing compared to the real thing happening in the real world right now. Just breaks my heart.

  3. Eric Harkleroad Post author

    I have not watched many of this series nor this movie but Michael Aranda's analysis of this is fantastic and I am likely to watch it soon.

  4. hailbopthecomet Post author

    I can’t wait for 2001!! It’s my favourite sci-if movie!!

  5. Ape X Post author

    I wish I was in war at a very young age, only if I can tell the story though.

  6. PaganShagger1488 Post author

    Why didn't this get a mass release? instead we get movies like Jack and Jill, City of a 1000 planets and super hero schlock…

  7. STKeTcH Post author

    I wish you mentioned the Soviet film “Come and See” at the beginning.

  8. TheTehpwnshow Post author

    This movie was incredible. I remember watching it twice almost back to back when it came out. Need to watch it again

  9. heerkitten Post author

    Can we get more explanation over the authorial intent and why it fell out of popularity?

  10. 4c1dr3fl3x Post author

    No recycled Kony memes? How quickly we move on.

  11. fartzinwind Post author

    I couldn't recommend this movie more to anyone who has not scene it. Just be forewarned it isn't for people who can't handle realistic war movies. It gets a lot of praise from movie reviewers, but has gone mostly unnoticed by general audiences.

  12. darknmy Post author

    I recently watched it again. What a spot on timing for this. Also I learned a lot from this video.
    When is the godfather?

  13. Zahir Yahya Post author

    This movie and 12 years a slave are the only 2 movies that brought tears to my eyes and made me question so much about humanity 😕

  14. James Vacher Post author

    Why doesn't the kid, Agu, just kill himself, or let himself get killed? We know he is religious, because he goes to church; he presumably knows the difference between right and wrong. His family are dead; in heaven. He too could join them. His killing of other people just increases his chances of going to hell.

  15. Will Huey Post author

    idris elba played one of the most evil characters in this movie.

  16. Admiral Good Boy Post author

    Im liking this anyone know where i can see this

  17. Phryxil Post author

    So very satisfying to get the meta on a piece of media I found intensely affecting. Thank you(yet again) for bridging my subjective chemistry/cognition divide and complexifying my understanding.

  18. Kenneth Lo Post author

    I have watched and analyzed films my entire life and this movie, although not terrible, does not deserve the attention that you are giving it. I chop it up to classic case of valuing the subject matter over the quality of content.

  19. Raturagutulei Moses Post author

    The actors were also great. Main and supporting actors and those that had their 15 seconds of fame. Like the soldier that was begging for his life from Agu and Striker, sgt. Butt naked and others.

  20. Alex Hernandez Post author

    Kids in war? You should do an episode on Come and See. Maybe more people will get to see it as a result.

  21. Rock Barcellos Post author

    It's a pointless movie about how things are bad in that region

  22. Vinesauce Obscurities Post author

    Fun fact, Idris Alba also plays a lead role in Sometimes in April, another historical fiction movie about conflict in Central Africa, specifically the Rwandan Genocide.

  23. krystal thomas Post author

    The scene when they kicked that little girl to death omg

  24. Lord Тасоббб Post author

    It is a great movie, glad to find this!

  25. Dahde Post author

    All I can say is this movie is almost like 'Come and See' from Elem Klimov. I recommend if you liked this.

  26. Emperor Hirohito Post author

    That part with the woman, I think it was just because he was on Meth mixed with Gunpowder

  27. blizzy dude Post author

    This film is very traumatic and the crazy part is that it is no where near the real experience.

  28. nakiya jackson Post author

    Can you please make a video on pan africanism

  29. TheCard -Tosser Post author

    I thought this was a good movie. Kinda was dissatisfied when the commandant deserted. They could’ve developed so much more on that part.

  30. Lil Shmokey Post author

    Read the book an watched this A-mazing

  31. Mr. CU NT Post author

    If you like this movie you'll love the book "a long way gone"

  32. Barry Jones Post author

    Wait.. i thought it was a real event… glad it wasn't

  33. Sandcastle • Post author

    The only criticism I have for this movie is it's anonymity.
    Taming the violence and abuse isn't really taking away the message from the movie, because it's already pretty horrific for our western taste.
    But not giving a solid non fiction base, making it a fictional country and rebel force with big money political backing means that we don't learn something about the horrible real history of African nationals.

    Ie, this movie doesn't nearly have the emotional depth (or power as you referred to it) of Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda or even Machine Gun Preacher.

  34. Comrade Che Post author

    We need more writers and directors with balls like this.

  35. Crazy Zombie Post author

    One of the greatest anti war statements since All Quiet On The Western Front

  36. Jeffry Jeff Post author

    Nice video but what way do you pronounce “Commandant”

  37. King Puddin Post author

    Beasts of no nation has to be one of the best movies of 2016. It’s sad that it’s so underrated

  38. Prod. by JJ Brem Post author

    we can either sit there and do nothing about it up like it's not happening or do something either

  39. PaganShagger1488 Post author

    Sad part is Agu was never forced into war, he wanted to kill the people that killed his family. He was drawn to it like a moth to the light.

  40. vikki dada Post author

    I will watch
    Can someone tell the issues addressed in the movie

  41. Carson George Post author

    I have not seen this movie yet but this video made me cry. Should I rent it?

  42. The Konduit Post author

    In real life there's a person called Butt Naked that's even worse

  43. Cheeseburger Post author

    اكتشفت اني مافهمت ولا شي لما تفرجت ع الفيلم اول مرة. 🙂

  44. thijsvox Post author

    Incredible movie, just rewatched it for the 2nd or 3rd time. Very powerful and in my humble opinion a movie that everyone could gain something from watching. Definitely helps you to look at civil / intrastate wars differently.

  45. Bobby Nash Post author

    This movie was booooooriiiiiiiing. Bold, sure. Dull, no doubt.

  46. pessimistic_man Post author

    Please make a video on the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime PLEASE

  47. theblackboyjoe Post author

    And the fact that it was snub for an oscar is further indication that the oscars are trash and should be ignored.

  48. Mr. CU NT Post author

    If y’all like this you should read A Long Way Gone

  49. Jboy J Post author

    This movie was seriously one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. What a masterpiece. A story that breaks your heart and the fact that this is happening with so many children in real life makes that feeling a thousand times worse.

  50. Elmo Gomez Post author

    Voces Inocentes should be recognized for some of this as well.

  51. Mikayel Alikhanyan Post author

    the only problem is that there are no likeable charecters, the boy was kidnaped ''pun intended'' then turns worse than the peapole who killed his mother, and he never gets punnished i know hes a kid but from the dark things hes done id shank him myself its soo gritty that there are no likeable charecters if you dont like that dont watch it

  52. Natcha P Post author

    This movie is point about the bigest problem that UN concern becasuse now aday child problem have been in any place thus have no peaceful eg. Somewhere in Affrica South east Asia…..

  53. HVYContent Post author

    If you watch the documentaries Vice TV made about Monrovia, Liberia (Cannibal War Lords) and the one about Central Africa, you'll understand this movie better.
    There's a dude in the movie who's butt naked, and there was a real life general name General Butt Naked who went around with a child army that performed blood sacrifices on innocent kids so that his army drink could drink the blood.
    He would also get them all hopped up on liquor and heroin before battles.
    Look it up.
    Anyways, this film hit all bases when it came to these topics, so Fukunaga really set the right type of tone in this one. Great film and Agu's character development was real as hell. Overall quality acting and work

  54. Täylor Lindman Post author

    You forgot to mention hunger games as a kid like war movie

  55. Johnny Dupont Post author

    I was an aid worker at the very beginning of the Liberian civil war and was in Charles Taylor controlled territory….. this movie captures it pretty well….. you would come across 12 year olds armed and stoned manning the too many bamboo road blocks as you travelled the red dirt back country roads.

  56. Littleshredder58 Post author

    Or maybe you’re just over complicating things and this is just Africa

  57. Vanessa Acosta Hernández Post author

    sin nombre was too sad I would have never thought it was the same director as beasts of no nation and true detective

  58. Aaron D Post author

    Every single review of this movie I've seen on YouTube has disappointed. CrashCourse please don't continue this trend! Please.

    No… you did well by this! Thank you!

  59. Northern Irish Independence Post author

    I thought they said it was set in Nigeria

  60. L.A. J Post author

    Oh actor named Strika idk his real name but he got robbed form his money 30k from his manager i think

  61. Bogdy Yo Post author

    Wait…I think I saw you somewhere..
    sci-show maybe ?

    great movie btw

  62. sumit sinha Post author

    Can you speak in the same way without reading the script please?
    It will help you faster to improve your oracy.

  63. John Smith Post author

    Is this really "the horrors of war"? I don't see any examples of sub Saharan Africans creating first world nations with values of inalienable rights and small constitutional republic type government. Every sub Saharan African nation lacks freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of self-defense. The violence amd collectivist authoritarianism appear to be a way of life or a core part of their value system.

  64. Rob Shift Post author

    Sexual predications? Bruh that never happened in the movie with the comadant and agu

  65. Huw Guyver Post author


    After the scene involving Agu walking away from the Commandant's room after being abused I had to pause the movie for a coffee break. There was one way in which Agu had not had his childhood stolen from him up to that point, and then the Commandant robbed him of that too.

    Beasts Of No Nation is one of the hardest-to-watch (in the right way) movies I've ever seen in my life, maybe THE hardest. Probably only Platoon has come close to hitting me the way this movie did. Such an incredible movie, and props to Crash Course for doing a video about it.


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