There have been a number of feature films dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder well before the term was coined, but in Tango on the Balcony, writer/director Minos Papas admirably creates a compelling portrait of a soldier dealing with the debilitating after effects of a wartime experience in a mere 19 minutes. Across that brief time, we watch as Johnny (Aristotle Stamat), a sniper who served in Iraq, wrestles with his demons or rather a very particular demon in the form of Abdullah, a teenage boy Johnny shot dead. Abdullah (Giuseppe Bausilio) is given very real form as an apparition who appears in Johnny’s disheveled apartment (with its notably lonely twin size bed) and the two of them perform a (second) dance of back and forth discussion as Johnny tries to work out in his mind whether the boy was an innocent bystander or a young terrorist. Their first dance? The tango on the balcony, the five seconds or so it took Johnny to hone in and take out with one bullet a suspicious boy on a cell phone standing on a balcony hundreds of yards away. As Abdullah’s ghost rightly tells him, Johnny will never know if the boy was guilty or innocent or even how old he was. What Johnny does know, what he is painfully aware of every second of every day, what eats at him even as he tries to sleep, is that he took the life of a boy, one who seems increasingly likely to have been innocent.
It would hardly be possible to give a full portrait of an individual in such a short running time and indeed we get little in the way of Johnny’s background or relationships. What we do get is a brief snippet of time from the war in Iraq: the moments leading up to and the climactic moment when he took that shot, seen through video-cam footage shot from the soldier’s point-of-view. As Johnny watches the scene over and over, his finger hovers over the delete button but each time he’s unable to delete the file, instead lashing out at the footage and himself by hurling the computer against the wall. Thus do we get a full picture of his current life, a life in turmoil, through past and present moments, the moment of execution and the moments that follow as Johnny struggles through everyday life, fighting paranoia on the New York City streets, feeling suspicion at the Middle Eastern man selling coffee from a food truck and who gives him a free coffee one morning, thanking him for his service.
The irony of the man thanking the ex-soldier for his service is etched on Johnny’s face as he pauses in the street, coffee in hand, the city swirling around him. The intended honor of serving in the military, the now-ingrained suspicion of anyone from the Middle East, the “service” he performed with a bullet from hundreds of yards away. Papas adds a further ironic touch as we see in the foreground a sign for a shop offering Tango Lessons, the lettering necessarily backwards from the viewer’s point of view. How can Johnny (his very name conjuring up Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun”) get back to a normal life in a world that is unaware of his struggles and colored in primary colors, not the blacks and whites and sometimes grays of war? Such is the question we are left to ponder in the remarkable Tango on the Balcony.
For more information about Tango on the Balcony please visit: tangoonthebalcony.com
Watch the film now on Kanopy: https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/tango-balcony
Review written by Mike Fishman.