One of the most important movies of 2020 is on Netflix right now, but you probably don’t know it. Most people did not notice when the service dropped Mosul onto the service in late November. That was not unusual. A lot of movies were getting lost in the deluge of digital sound and vision being pumped into our devices. But even during more ordinary times, this is a movie that would have had a difficult time getting traction. After all, it’s an Iraq War without Americans.
Written and directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mosul is based on Luke Mogelson’s 2017 New Yorker article about the heroism of the Nineveh SWAT team in the battle to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. It’s top-rate wartime journalism, detailing with gripping prose the fighters’ desperate, up-against-a-wall determination to wrest their home from a vile enemy. They were a fierce enough band of brothers (“If you go toward death, death retreats” was typical dialogue) that for them ISIS revoked their customary chance for prisoners to pledge allegiance to the Caliphate, simply executing them instead. “We had killed too many of them,” one SWAT member told Mogelson.
Carnahan, a writer of topical thrillers that often laid a scrim of topicality atop somewhat generic action (Deepwater Horizon, World War Z), mostly repeats that pattern here in his directorial debut. Shearing off most of the backstory, he bends and twists the material until it fits a 21st century action-movie template. Things kick off when a SWAT detachment which has gone rogue to carry out a mission of personal import comes across Kawa, a young and untested Kurdish policeman Kawa (Adam Bessa) pinned down by ISIS. After making short work of the enemy, the team’s leader Captain Jasem (the great Suhail Dabbach) brings Kawa along with them. They fight their way through Mosul, largely reduced by years of shelling and street-fighting to a Stalingrad-like sprawl of dun-colored rubble.
In keeping with the aggressively showy style of combat favored by Netflix actioners like Extraction (which shares the Russo brothers as producers with Mosul), Carnahan makes sure that the combat is unrelenting and studded with deadly shocks. Snipers, VBIEDs, booby traps, and kamikaze drones are constant threats. At the same time, though, he mostly eschews gaming-type leveling in which the team goes up against progressively more difficult challenges or shows superhuman capabilities. The fighting is presented as more grim task to be completed than heroic endeavor. “We can rebuild,” Jasem says to Kawa with Dabbach’s etched granite F. Murray Abraham-esque stoicism. “We just have to kill them all first.”
At the same time, Carnahan layers in humanizing elements that help the men come across as people rather than gaming avatars. Delighted at finding an apartment in the shattered city that still has electricity and a functioning television, they settle in for a quick hookah break, phone recharge, and check-in on a favorite soap opera (“Kuwaitis, bro,” one sighs admiringly while watching a character with multiple wives).
Generally effective, if often unsurprising, Mosul is unlikely to be remembered on its own cinematic merits. However, while Carnahan’s flattening of the story into one potentially doomed mission has its dramatic flaws, his focus on Iraqis is not only welcome, it still stands as something of a rebuke to just about every other Iraq War movie out there. Since the 2003 invasion, American depictions of the war have tended to the solipsistic, using the Iraqi battlefield as a vehicle for celebrating the nation’s manhood (American Sniper, which looks even uglier and more jingoistic now than then), critiquing its moral shortcomings (In the Valley of Elah, Redacted), or working out other issues that have little or nothing to do with the war itself (The Hurt Locker). Despite their other merits, these dramas, much like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, tend to use the locals not as actual people whose nationhood hangs in the balance but mere color for Americans to enact guilt or revenge upon.
In Mosul, though, Americans are there only as a bad memory. The story features characters young enough to have been children when the occupation began. “We used to throw rocks at the Americans,” one SWAT member comments, casually upending the rigid good Arab/bad Arab dichotomy used in most War on Terror narratives. At one point, a suggestion is made to call in an airstrike by the Americans who remain in country to provide extra firepower. That gets swatted down: “They flatten everything because they don’t have to rebuild anything.”
That sense of history, that awareness of what has come before and what might come after, reverberates throughout Mosul. No matter that the SWAT is fighting through a city of rubble, Jasem still makes a point of picking up the trash wherever they are. In one somewhat manufactured yet still memorable moment, the squad comes across a Shiite militia commanded by a snaky and fey Iranian Special Forces colonel (Waleed Elgadi). His definition of Iraq (“You were created by a drunk British dilettante and a French bureaucrat with inaccurate maps”) drips with aristocratic scorn. Yet the reaction to his words feels like a country trying to put itself back together again.
Director/writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cast: Suhail Dabbach, Bilal Adam Bessa, Is’haq Elias, Waleed Elgadi