You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Last Men in Aleppo’

Amid a recent influx of Syria-themed docs, Feras Fayyad's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner stands out for its rich craft and practical candor.

When a devastating international crisis brings with it an inevitable surfeit of topical documentaries on the subject, audiences can be overwhelmed to the point of inactivity. No one outside the festival circuit has either the inclination or the constitution to watch them all, while the options can look indistinguishably downbeat even to the conscientious. The ongoing Syrian Civil War has been abundantly covered on screen of late — with three Syria-related feature docs premiering at Sundance this year alone. But a standout candidate for crossover distribution may have emerged in “Last Men in Aleppo.” Feras Fayyad’s viscerally immediate, exquisitely realized portrait of the Syrian Civil Defense’s “White Helmet” volunteers at the frontline of the conflict in Syria’s decimated capital may not be the most comprehensively explanatory or analytical film yet made on the war, but it’s the one that provides viewers with the most sensorily vivid and empathetic sense yet of how it feels to live (and die) through the carnage.

Unsurprisingly awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Fayyad’s film should have no trouble parlaying its Park City heat into extensive further festival play and acclaim, as well as offers from top documentary-specific distributors. Multi-platform release strategies are likely, aiming to engage audiences wary of venturing to theaters for such a heart-sinking chronicle. That said, the cinema is where “Last Men in Aleppo” firmly belongs. Together with co-director and editor Steen Johannessen, Fayyad brings a rigorous sense of craft and shock-and-awe scale to the film’s impressions of destruction, without impeding its anxious, on-the-hoof spontaneity. Any viewers coming to this after seeing “The White Helmets,” Netflix’s commendable, Oscar-nominated short on the SCD, needn’t fear seeing the same film again at greater length: This is a less cleanly packaged project, patient and nuanced in developing its individual human subjects and emotional stakes.

If anything, the Netflix film could serve as a useful primer for “Last Men in Aleppo,” which assumes a fair bit of knowledge on the audience’s part regarding who the White Helmets are and the circumstances that require them. Beginning with a rather cryptic, counterintuitive opening credit sequence featuring serenely floating goldfish — given poignant context later in the film — Fayyad often requires viewers to catch up with his most arresting visions, furnishing them with minimal journalistic detail. By leading with sheer, horrifying sensation as explosions shake the camera and buildings are reduced to dust before our very eyes, the film communicates the most universal human losses of the Syrian conflict. After all, finer political complexities aren’t the first thing on one’s mind when the fight is simply to stay alive and standing; Fayyad presents a warzone so exhausted and smoke-swathed for its participants that its very cause has disappeared amid the rubble.

With the conditions and textures of its environment established, however, the film is simple and pragmatic in its focus. Though it introduces and tracks a number of individual White Helmet workers, also giving a strong, moving sense of their strength as a collective, two emerge as particularly charismatic principals. Jovial family man Khaled Harah is the chief rallier of the group, attempting to keep his fellow volunteers motivated and hopeful as they negotiate human damage and debris that accumulates faster than they can sift through it, as bombs practically blur into background noise. His doughtiness, however, masks his own crisis of confidence, with his instincts caught between loyal service to his home city and the safeguarding of his wife and two daughters. “Something inside me tells me to leave,” he says to camera — though he knows that no one is likely to replace him on the rescue team if he does.

His more solemn partner Mahmoud, meanwhile, has put his philosophy studies on indefinite hold to join the White Helmets — grappling instead with weighty matters of ethics and accountability while out in the field, and struggling with the perception of heroism while other distraught citizens have the soul ripped out of them. “Last Men in Aleppo” follows his lead by refusing to sentimentalize their mission, sometimes to the point of brutal anticlimax. In one crushing scene, the extraction of a baby’s corpse in the wreckage and the discovery of its living but dumbfounded mother occur only seconds apart. There’s no triumph to be found in this job, only degrees of tragedy. A ghoulish sensibility even prevails on occasion, as workers try to discern the identity of a single severed foot, not long after they’re brusquely instructed to watch out for detached limbs in the fray.

Like its human subjects, the film is at pains to avoid self-congratulation as it strenuously puts this all to screen: The tone throughout is one of no-nonsense candor, not elevated martyrdom. Even so, it can hardly escape viewers’ notice that this frequently astonishing first-hand footage — shot over the course of a year between September 2015 and the fall of 2016 — has been obtained at immense risk to the lives of the filmmakers. That makes the care with which it has been composed and assembled all the more remarkable.

Even when caught directly in the crossfire, director of photography Fadi al Halabi and his crew of cameramen shoot with consistent poise and precision, keeping a constant eye out for human activity at the very edges of a scene; there’s even a perverse beauty at play in various dazzlingly lit images of pyrotechnic destruction and raging flames. Johannessen and co-editor Michael Bauer organize the footage with a keen sense of passing time, without imposing too much of a narrative structure on events that feel, to those affected, shapelessly futile. If a few too many of the film’s consecutive final scenes seem to draw to an ending — before a gut-wrencher of a closing chyron — one can understand the reluctance to let any of this material go spare.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Last Men in Aleppo'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition), Jan. 23, 2017. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Denmark-Syria) A LARM Film, Aleppo Media Center presentation in association with Kloos & Co Medien. (International sales: DR Sales, Copenhagen.) Produced by Søren Steen Jespersen, Kareem Abeed. Co-producer, Stefan Kloos.

Crew: Directed by Feras Fayyard. Co-director, Steen Johannessen. Camera (color, widescreen), Fadi al Halabi. Editors, Johannessen, Michael Bauer.

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content