The latest Netflix-made film delves into the war in Iraq when the Iraqis finally expelled ISIS from Mosul in 2017. The film shows the utter destruction and human cost of taking back from the terror of the Islamic State what was Iraq’s second-largest city.
Director Michael Carnahan’s film is dirty, bloody, and brutal. Mosul is completely smashed as if a nuclear explosion had razed it. The film is a grim reminder of how the Iraqis had to liberate the city one house at a time and in doing so, absolutely leveled it. The overhead shots that show the destruction look like they were taken straight out of news footage.
The film doesn’t ease the viewer into the action: it thrusts him right into the middle of a shootout between two Iraqi cops and a large number of ISIS fighters. Surrounded by dead and wounded cops and ISIS fighters, in a bullet-ridden shell of what appeared to be once a home or a small shop, the two cops are hopelessly outgunned but are hanging on until they run out of ammo.
While the captured ISIS fighters yell to their comrades that the cops are out of bullets, the two stare at each other with the all-too-familiar realization that they are about to become two more casualties in the city. Then a massive amount of gunfire erupts outside the shop. And a palpable silence envelops the scene.
The two cops are rescued by a small unit of the legendary Iraqi Ninevah SWAT Team. Suspicious of two cops being in the wrong part of the city, they first, without hesitation, cut the throats of the ISIS prisoners, then question the policemen by checking their names against a list of cops who had gone over to ISIS.
The head of the SWAT Team is Major Jasem, who is expertly played by Iraqi actor, Suhail Dabbach. Jasem is a strikingly contrasting character: On the one hand, he is a steely, taciturn, and utterly cold-blooded killer of ISIS fighters. On the other, he’s sympathetic to and caring for children and laments the war interrupting his past job, one he says he liked and was good at, that of a police detective. Amid the absolute destruction of the city, when the team takes a break in a house, Jasem picks up trash and deposits it in a trash can.
Jasem recognizes the fighting ability of Kawa, the younger of the two cops rescued, played by Tunisian-French actor Adam Bessa, and asks him to join the SWAT Team. “We need bodies,” he replies laconically when Kawa asks why he was chosen, “we’re the good guys.”
There will be no more arrests for ISIS fighters, they will all die, bloody, and suffering.
Jasem keeps speaking about the team’s mission which is a mystery to Kawa. His attempts to find out about the mission are met with questions or contempt by the other team members; this only compounds the mystery.
In the midst of all of the killing and destruction, there is a brief moment of respite for the team in the aforementioned house. The house has electricity and a working television. The team is humanized as it crowds around a messy bedroom, watches a Kuwaiti soap opera, and debates the motivations of the third wife of one of the show’s stars. It is the kind of absurdity that every military member can attest to that always seems to rise to the top in any situation.
Jasem’s team slowly gets whittled down by the constant and brutal close-quarters fighting with ISIS, yet they steadfastly continue their mission. Kawa is shown to quickly adapt to the brutality, like his comrades, dispatching one man with a tomahawk/hatchet. He sadly loses his innocence rather quickly, as the entire film takes place in less than 24 hours. “Just tell me what to do,” he tells Jasem
The team has an uncomfortable meeting with an Iranian-led militia and has to trade for ammunition, all the while each side pointing weapons at each other. Jasem and the Iranian IRGC officer, (who is a smarmy dink, which should resonate with many in America), nearly come to violence as they hurl insults at each other. The confrontation also sends the subliminal message that the Iranians and Iraqis won’t be getting along for long.
The dialogue is completely in Arabic, lending authenticity to the film and the subtitles don’t take away from the film at all. The rooftop scene is excellently filmed and when the mission of the team is finally revealed it is one of hope against the backdrop of utter hopelessness.
This is a different type of war film. If you’re looking for American involvement, you’ll be disappointed. This is an all-Iraqi story and well worth your time.