Since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. military and its allies, there have been a slew of American-made films chronicling the experience of our service members in a war that, along with the one in Afghanistan, has come to represent a modern day case study in colonialist futility. With the exception of The Hurt Locker, essentially all of these films have come and gone, and even that lauded entry is not without its critics in the veteran community. Yet as important as it is to narrate the experiences of those who do the fighting in a nation that has become increasingly divorced from the culture of its armed services, the Western-centric perspective that has represented basically the entire genre of the “Iraq War Movie” till now has largely ignored the fact that…this is an actual country, with actual people, not an orientalist destination for fictionalized U.S. Marines to engage in deep, or pseudo-deep, thoughts on the human condition in between gunfights.
Mosul, released last November 26, is past all that. Written and directed by Mathew Michael Carnahan, the film adapts an article called “The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS” by New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson about the Nineveh SWAT Team, an elite Iraq police unit who has defied orders to retreat and taken the battle to ISIS alone for months while the main coalition of Iraqi forces grinds away at the terrorist “Caliphate’s” control over the city. For the first time, we have an Iraq War movie about Iraqis, entirely in Arabic and with an all-Arab cast on either side of the conflict (minus that one Persian guy, but more on that later). And, by and large, a damn good one.
Mosul leaned heavily into this novelty in its marketing, releasing a trailer with scenes that included dialogue of Suhail Dabbach’s Major Jasem saying “we’re the good guys” and giving a nationalist harangue to an Iranian militia handler about an “Iraq without terrorists, the West, Saddam”. The social media reaction at the time tended to focus on this, but ultimately, the film turned out to be a riveting, brutal, and remarkably concise experience that manages to foreground but never sentimentalize diversity. There’s a war on, and not a White U.S. Marine in sight. Who gives a fuck?
The set-up is simple, and some minor spoilers will follow. After three cops, including the Kurdish rookie Kawa, take a handful of Daesh* fighters prisoner, their buddies roll up and besiege the place, killing Kawa’s uncle and losing many of their own in a furious gunfight. As Kawa and his partner spend the last of their ammo and draw blades to make their last stand, the Nineveh SWAT Team, under former homicide detective Major Jasem, ambush the assailants and kill them. A tense standoff between the partners and their rescuers follows, and Kawa accepts an offer to join them. They need the manpower, and he’s met the criteria of losing a family member to Daesh needed to join the team. What follows is a tense journey through the ruins of Mosul in pursuit of an unstated mission beset with frenetic gunplay, treachery, post-colonial politics, and nods to the broader Arab and Islamic culture milieu in which these men fight for their city against the petty criminals and fundamentalist psychos who have spent the last year raping and pillaging it on “a medieval scale”. At 86 minutes, Mosul never wastes a scene, and if it lacks philosophising or any deep analysis of the sectarian tensions and perversion of religion that gave rise to Daesh in the first place, this shouldn’t be confused with vapidity. “Everything about them is empty” says Jasem while finding porn mags buried among ammo and other supplies looted from a captured Daesh base, and the film’s most powerful statement about the so-called Islamic State is not to recount their horrors in detail (which it doesn’t), but simply dismiss them as crooks and losers playing gangster under a veneer of pious bullshit.
Any warfare movie is going to be defined by its combat, and Mosul channels the best of Call of Duty without wasting time on improbable set pieces that strain credulity. Firefights and bombings are quick, messy, and efficient from a story-telling perspective without glossing over the randomness and absurdity of death in war nor the need to mourn one’s friends, kick a wall in rage during a free moment, and then immediately resume the fight. At the climactic base assault that forms the penultimate movement of the film, we see one of the group, Akram, shot in the shoulder and clutching the ground in agony as his squad member administers first aid. As Jasem and the fireteam converge on their position, Akram is already dead. “God rest his soul” Jasem says, then leads them into the breach. In an earlier scene, the unit’s sniper headshots one of his own teammates in a friendly fire fuckup and a grenade thrown inexperetly in the heat of battle rebounds off a building and wounds Kawa in the explosion.
Mosul can at times stray into generic territory in some of its character work, and in this regard, much like the aforementioned grenade, it’s conciseness rebounds upon itself. Despite a squad of maybe eight named characters, we get precious little back story on any of them, and the film focuses mostly on squad leaders Jasem and Waleed, besides Kawa. I should state that in the following observation I’m parroting Roxana Hadadi in her review of the film here, but Suhail Dabbach is the anchor of Mosul. He is a reluctant warrior, almost too kindly and paternal in his leadership of the SWAT to be believable, and yet an effective leader who kills without mercy and nonchalantly tells Kawa to leave a Daesh fighter to die of blood loss rather than bullet him out of his misery. Where I will disagree with Hadadi (whose review I glanced at about halfway through finishing my own) is in regards to a particularly good scene (possibly the film’s best) where the SWAT barter cigarettes for ammo from Iranian Colonel Isfahani and the Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces unit he supervises. After a dispute erupts over SWAT’s demands to turn over a Daesh collaborator, the two CO’s erupt in a shouting match against each other’s countries as the product of drunk map drawing and “children who took hostages”.
It’s a good example of the double nature of nationalism, which can be progressive when weaponized against colonialism but degenerate into xenophobia in the same breath. If it can be called “melodramatic” to an extent, it’s no more so than any real world “size comparison” argument, and an astute reminder that speaking of geopolitical power relations in a reductive “the West versus everyone” framework, whether pro or against, is itself an extension of Western navel-gazing. The lands that would later become the modern states of Iraq and Iran predate Western imperialism and will postdate it. The same children who threw rocks at American Humvees during the occupation have grown up to be Jasem’s soldiers, and those who survive will remain to fight for and rebuild their city long after ISIS, indiscriminate American drone strikes, Iranian proxies, and all and sundry outsiders and assholess have been driven out or grown bored of killing them for sport. Their loyalties are national and parochial, and not based in chauvinism or any more elaborate ideology than the human desire to live in peace.
In this regard (and the following opinions are my own, not reflective of any other writer for TSS or the publication as a whole), Mosul manages to break new ground in the industry without succumbing to the traps of some self–consciously “woke” entertainment that pats itself on the back for inclusiveness without doing the heavy lifting of telling a strong story, or otherwise so thoroughly consumes itself with fighting oppression that it flattens marginalized identities into one-note suffering. It is the first mainstream Western action movie centered on Arab and Muslim experiences, and knows it, but wastes no time in valorizing itself on being groundbreaking. These are ordinary men in a world gone to hell rebuilding it one block at a time, and if they make up two generations defined by violence, their children will inherit what they wrest from the ashes. The rest of us are just tourists.
*Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS and resembling an Arabic root referring to one who crushes or tramples underfoot, is the typical name for ISIS is Muslim countries.