Mercifully, the film is coming out on Netflix, which once again has dared to do the unthinkable: tell a foreign story with foreign actors in a foreign language. The film is all the better for it.
We get little introduction: just a few lines of text played over drone shots of a city in ruins. These tell us that we are in the closing stages of the battle for Iraq’s (former) second biggest city; that Islamic State (or Daesh) forces are finally on the run after more than two years of control; and that we are about to follow the exploits of the Ninevah SWAT team, an elite, local police unit famed for its effectiveness at killing terrorists.
We are then dropped straight into the action: a brutal firefight in which Daesh forces have another police unit pinned down. One of the officers, Kawa (Adam Bessa), is just twenty-one and is powerless to act as his uncle is shot and killed in front of him. Before the squad is totally wiped out, though, the SWAT team arrive and dispatch the gunmen.
Believed to have been wiped out themselves some time before, the team bring with them not just firepower, but mystique
Believed to have been wiped out themselves some time before, the team bring with them not just firepower, but mystique. Most mysterious of all is their leader, Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach), who commands an almost-reverential respect from his young troops. Kawa is as intrigued as he is intimidated, and when Jasem asks him if he wants to join their team, he accepts.
But he is not accepted. His new compatriots are deeply suspicious of him, and Kawa – this shy, timid boy – has to win their trust. It is not as contrived as it sounds: when your country has been let down as often as Iraq has, when you are in a life-and-death situation as these soldiers are, trust is understandably hard-won. The film is as much a coming-of-age tale, then, as it is a war film – as much about fitting in as fighting – and over the course of the team’s mission, Kawa has to grow up fast.
A little too fast for my liking. These events are all supposed to take place in one day and, even in this war-torn environment, this doesn’t seem enough time for a character to go from complete innocent to hardened super-soldier. How anyone in this place could be so innocent to start with is also a mystery. It all smacks of Hollywood screenwriting to me.
Which makes sense. The film’s writer-director, Matthew Michael Carnahan, is American and, although this is his first time directing, is a long-established Hollywood screenwriter, with films like Dark Waters (2019), 21 Bridges (2019), Deepwater Horizon (2016) and State of Play (2009) to his name. No doubt, then, a writer of some pedigree, but still an outsider to this material.
When following the team’s armoured cars, the long tracking shots used grant a wider sense of the city’s geography and let the viewer drink in the desolation
Why go to all the trouble of telling this story and then get an American to write and direct? Hasn’t America interfered in Iraq enough already? The by-numbers Hollywood plotting just does not feel right here. Producers Joseph and Anthony Russo should have hired someone local.
For all that, Carnahan does do a decent job with the direction. When following the team on foot, the camerawork is mostly handheld (but never too shaky), making you feel like one of the team and part of the action. When following the team’s armoured cars, the long tracking shots used grant a wider sense of the city’s geography and let the viewer drink in the desolation. More immersive still is the sound design. With Henry Jackman’s minimal score kept low in the mix, it is the ping of bullets and punch of gunfire that make most of the noise; they sound alarmingly realistic.
The commendably quiet and low-key ending is all the more effective for this and left this viewer, at least, with a generally positive feeling about the film. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s what’s in front of the camera, not who’s behind it, that matters most, and the fact that this place and these people are on our screens at all is undoubtedly a good thing. Some progress, then.
Featured Image: IMDb