“Mosul” is currently playing on Netflix. It is the latest from Joe and Anthony Russo of Captain America and Avengers fame. It was directed by Matthew Carnahan in his debut. He wrote “World War Z”. “Mosul” was based on a New Yorker article entitled “The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS” by Luke Mogelson. This film is the first international film in the Iraqi dialect. It was filmed in Morocco with a cast from the Middle East and North Africa. Most were unknowns, but Suhail Dubbach (who plays Major Jaseem) was a well-known actor in Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam. The cast was put through a three-week boot camp.
In 2017, an odd coalition of anti-ISIS forces attempted to take back the city of Mosul. In the coalition was the Nineveh SWAT team that had worked in the city before its fall in 2014. A flyover reveals that the city was destroyed in the fighting. At this point, ISIS is in the process of evacuating the city. The SWAT team is attempting to kill any Daesh (the Iraqi name for ISIS) still in the city. The movie opens with them rescuing a pair of policemen who are besieged by Daesh gunmen. Major Jasem recruits the younger of the two. Kawa meets the qualification of either having been wounded by Daesh or having lost a loved one. Kawa is the cherry who will have to earn the respect of the hardened SWAT members. The unit starts with 12, but it is clear early on that this will be a “who will survive?” movie. But it is not a last stand or a lost patrol movie. They are not lost, but they are constantly moving through the rubble. They have a “mission” that they will not let Kawa, or us, in on. As they move, they encounter some of the other forces in the coalition and duel with Daesh.
The movie covers a few hours in one day. It does not attempt to retell the Battle of Mosul. It concentrates on a small group of Iraqis who are personally committed to liberating their city. But they are mainly motivated by revenge. They and their foes give no quarter. It is hard to tell at the start if they are any different than Daesh, but the movie is clearly an homage to the Nineveh SWAT team. Although only Jasem and Kawa are developed as characters, the other men are typical of a gritty small unit movie. They are battle-weary and sometimes question orders. There is a rough camaraderie. Jasem is the most fascinating. He is a father figure for his men and really cares for them. He has a gruff exterior and can be ruthless, but he does not fit the one-dimensional martinet stereotype from most Western war movies. On the other hand, Kawa goes from naïve cop to hard core avenger too quickly. It’s the only weak characterization in the unit. The cast is solid, especially Dubbach.
Is it a war movie? I would say yes. Although it tells the story of a police unit, they are participating in house-to-house fighting in a war. They do move like a SWAT team and the boot camp must have concentrated on that type of training. The combat is intense, but not combat porn. It is episodic as the movie takes time for exposition and humanizing incidents. At one point, they watch a soap opera. The combat scenes break no new ground. There is no slo-mo and it is not graphic. It is intimate as the camera takes us down the alleys with them. It is realistic in its depiction of the chaotic nature of a counterinsurgency in an urban environment. Action breaks out suddenly and the deaths are random and unpredictable. There is some FUBAR as at least one death is from friendly fire. The enemy is faceless and there is no central hissable villain as you commonly find in these movies. However, although the men do make some cracks about America’s role, it is easy to root for these guys and it is easy to feel empathy, although hard to imagine what a situation like that would be like.
As far as accuracy, I read the article and the screenplay appears to be based on it, rather than an adaptation of it. The article has the Nineveh SWAT team playing a role in the liberation of Mosul, but does not mention any mission as depicted in the movie. In fact, being a SWAT unit, the men are not really geared for taking neighborhoods, as they are assigned to do. The movie forgoes the lack of success the unit had. It does a better job portraying the men as the resilient victims of a sectarian civil war. It also does a good job showing the casualties they had to overcome. It is great at putting the unit in action movie situations, but as entertaining as the scenes are, they are only loosely related to the incidents in the article.
The movie is certainly watchable and a must-see for war movie fans who have Netflix. There are plenty of mindless shoot ‘em ups streaming. “Mosul” is set apart from most because it does not try to get the entire male demographic. Teenage boys will probably not like it. It may not realistically chronicle the team’s participation in the battle, but what happens feels real and you will care about Iraqis fighting for their country. Maybe after the can of worms America opened up, we should see the victims trying to clean up the mess like an American hero would.
GRADE = B