Filmmaking, for audiences and filmmakers alike, is almost always an exercise in catharsis. We pay to laugh, to cry and to see our heroes win. Matthew Michael Carnahan’s directorial debut Mosul is a cathartic exercise if not for him than almost certainly for his actors. The majority Iraqi cast find themselves in that rare, enviable position of playing some of the heroes that liberated Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State caliphate in 2017.
ISIS or Daesh, as they are known in Iraq, are on the run. Mosul is about to fall but the Nineveh SWAT team – led by Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach) – are out to kill every last Daesh fighter left in the city. Rookie police officer Kawa (Adam Bessa) is rescued and recruited by the team to help with their mission. As the team descends into the shit once more Kawa learns that it’s not the strategic targets that matter to the Nineveh SWAT.
If this film was made a decade ago it would have been about American soldiers liberating Fallujah but it wasn’t and thank God for that. The world has seen enough cinematic depictions of the American War Machine crushing middle eastern cities into dust. It’s time we got to know the people that lived, and when the time came fought, there. Carnahan has spent his time in the trenches writing propagandistic shlock for the likes of Peter Berg but once Netflix and the Russo brothers gave him his shot at making the war film he wanted to he jumped at the chance.
The Iraq-ISIS war was a massive three-year conflict involving support from the United States, Canada, Russia and Iran. But the heroes of this war are those that were on the ground fighting to retake the 56,000 kilometres and the 4.5 million civilians held by Daesh. The female Kurdish General Rojda Felat and the Nineveh SWAT are perhaps the most famous and it’s in telling these smaller stories that we gain context of the war as it was. If Felat’s ideology points a way forward for women in the Middle East then Mosul shows how the deep personal ties that make us human become lifelines in a time of war.
Dialogue in Mosul mostly consists of shouted commands and occasional exposition. Carnahan often lets action do the talking whether it’s when the bullets are flying or in snatched moments of silent tenderness. He gives both equal weight such as when Kawa listens to Run the Jewels with his newest brother-in-arms or when the men watch a Kuwaiti soap opera in a brief rest period. A lot of time is given to the treatment of bodies. The men pray over fallen comrades and carry them as if they were merely asleep. In contrast Jasem spits on the corpse of a Daesh sniper, a boy not even yet 18, and snaps “Fuck you and everything you stood for”. Jasem knows that Daesh will kill them without mercy and so they give them the same courtesy. War is hell and Mosul dives right into it.
Carnahan rarely allows style to threaten the substance of his film. His one concession is the face mask with a skull painted on it that Kawa wears. Otherwise the action is desperate and kinetic as if someone took lessons from both Paul Greengrass and Zero Dark Thirty. Dud rockets and poorly tossed grenades won’t give most viewers the destruction and bloodshed they crave but if they did Mosul would feel less real. The combat in the film is both clinical and desperate and the script often feels like George R. R. Martin had a pass on it considering how no character ever feels safe.
It would be easy to compare Mosul to The Kingdom, another film written by Carnahan, but it bears a closer resemblance to movies like Saving Private Ryan and 1917. Small stories at the heart of epic conflicts always work better and Mosul is no different even if we never really get to know certain characters as well as we should. By its end Mosul has revealed itself to be a film not about the shattering effects of war but about the lengths we’ll go to for the people and places we love. War is hell, true, but as Major Jasem says “The night is always darkest before dawn”. For all its thematic darkness Mosul knows that life can and must go on after war which is why rather than ending in fire and death it closes on a scene of domestic harmony, gorgeously shot in a rose-gold light.