Afghanistan Battle Bros

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ brings to mind the Afghans we left behind

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’, directed by, believe it or not, Guy Ritchie, is as red-meat a dad movie as you’ll find in theaters this year. It’s a war story, full of male bonding, with themes of honor, commitment, duty, and plenty of violence, though you don’t see a ton of blood so the action scenes feel somewhat like video games.  At the same time, it has quite a clear head about our disastrous, recently-concluded military adventure in Afghanistan. The Taliban are objectively evil, the U.S. military, though powerful, is fighting cultural forces it can’t understand, and ordinary Afghans find themselves buffeted, as usual, by the forces of history.

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies, Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim
Running time: 125 min

For reasons I can’t understand, Ritchie felt compelled to put his name in the title, which other directors of war pictures don’t do. You don’t find yourself saying Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, or Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Yet here Guy Ritchie, creator of lad British crime movies and two terrible Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes pictures, decides to put his personal stamp on the title. This is somewhat strange, since The Covenant, other than some early homo-panic banter among soldiers, doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie movie at all, much to the good. It’s a taut military thriller with two fantastic lead performances.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays John Kinley, an Army sergeant leading up a special-ops team tasked with the dangerous job of finding Taliban weapons caches. The military assigns him an interpreter, a tough mechanic named Ahmed, played by Dar Salim, whose previous credits mostly include European TV shows, and who forms the moral center of the film, as well as being a kick-ass action hero, a kind of Afghan Rambo. As you can see from the preview, the team runs into trouble. Only Kinley and Ahmed make it out, barely, and Ahmed must drag Jake Gyllenhaal (who is very tall) across an entire mountain range back to base. It’s a heroic and extended sequence that forms the movie’s heart.

Then Ahmed disappears, and when Gyllenhaal makes it back to Southern California, where he operates an oddly successful vintage-car restoration business, he makes it his mission to get Ahmad, his wife, and his infant son immigration visas to pay back the debt he owes for Ahmed saving his life.

The Covenant isn’t subtle. Ahmed, who’s standing in for all the brave Afghans who helped the U.S fight against the Taliban, commits an act of heroism, almost superheroism. The military considers him expendable, but Gyllenhaal doesn’t. Much emoting occurs, mostly on Gyllenhaal’s end. The camera drowns in his eyes, which are so big and blue that Ahmed actually comments on them. Salim, on the other hand, is as stoic as Steve McQueen, in a performance worthy of The Cooler King. Ritchie backs the action with an overwrought, violin-heavy soundtrack, which actually serves to undermine the tension of the excellent, close-quarter battle scenes. And there’s an annoying bit at the beginning where he freeze-frames the movie for titles labeling supporting soldier characters who serve no purpose other than to be Taliban cannon fodder. One soldier’s character is, literally, he likes to eat, which doesn’t exactly make him unique in human history.

The movie also is a little light on its portrayal of private military contractors, who operate in Afghanistan with impunity and with weaponry out of the reach of the official military. While this may be true to reality, it’s also quite sinister. In the case of this particular story, they’re useful to the good guys. But I found myself asking: who are these people? And whose interests are they really serving? In the end, when they unleash the equivalent of the Death Star on a phalanx of SUV-driving Taliban marauders, I found myself thinking: if it’s really this easy, then why didn’t the war end after a week?

The Covenant is a cornball picture in some ways. It glorifies violence, and Ritchie is not a master director under any rubric. But in this case, his heart and brain are in the right place. Ordinary Afghans showed remarkable courage in helping us try to defeat the Taliban, and then we abandoned them to live forever under the thumb of Islamofascism. This movie tells the completely fictional story of one family that, through extraordinary courage and plot coincidence, made it out alive. Gyllenhaal and Salim make us believe that the Covenant is real. It also makes us think of the people who are still trapped in Afghanistan, which may be its entire purpose for existing.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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