In June 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to ISIS (also known as Daesh or the Islamic State). A joint-forces campaign to reclaim it began two years later and ended with the re-establishment of Iraqi control of the devastated, decimated city in July 2017. Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Joe and screenwriter of “The Kingdom” and “Deepwater Horizon”) picks through the debris of that campaign of barely two years ago for his directorial debut, “Mosul,” a well-made but troublingly generic war-is-hell pulse-pounder that inevitably prompts the question: How recent is too recent when it comes to turning a theater of war into pure theater, pure Hollywood spectacle?
The past is supposed to be another country, but 2017 feels barely an exploding city block behind us. And most of us can probably still recall that part of the horror of the Mosul campaign, which was described in vivid detail in a 2017 New Yorker article by Luke Mogelson, was that the tactics of ISIS were such a disturbingly distinctive combination of ideological extremism and barbaric cruelty. But it’s as though Carnahan was energized not by the article’s unique, embedded perspective on what made this particular battle so extraordinary, but by the potential to map it to a familiar screenwriting pattern. So the action is telescoped into one single day, with a series of missions of escalating stakes, and the characters reduced/elevated to archetypes: the naive rookie; the ferocious team leader with a plan glinting in his gimlet eyes; the mistrustful grunt whose respect is only gradually earned; and the taciturn comrade who extends a tentative hand — or earbud — of friendship, only to be instantly, randomly killed.
This is, loosely speaking, the story of the Ninevah SWAT team, a renegade band of Mosul-based Iraqi soldiers who gained a reputation for ruthless effectiveness in the waning days of the Battle of Mosul, as the last of ISIS’ strongholds in the city were falling. Here played by Arabic actors — all of whom acquit themselves well, given the narrow confines of their characters as written — this ragtag squad of survivors is led by Major Jaseem (Suhail Dabbach, radiating Terence Stamp-ish charisma) and his second-in-command, Waleed (Is’haq Elias). But their numbers are dwindling and so in the cacophonic confusion of the bloody, bruising opening scene, in which Henry Jackman’s regionally-inflected action score takes a backseat to ear-splitting explosions and gunfire, they recruit Kawa (Bilal Adam Bessa), a young Kurdish cop caught in the ambush that killed his policeman uncle.
Having now lost a family member to ISIS, Kawa is qualified to join Ninevah SWAT, though not trusted enough to know their actual mission. Instead, like an Iraqi version of the Charlie Sheen character in “Platoon,” Kawa learns the ropes on the go, and over the course of a single day of bribery, bartering, bullet-dodging and brutality, goes from trembling, hesitant ingenu to war-weary, seen-it-all diehard.
DP Mauro Fiore’s fervent, explosive handheld cinematography has undeniable visceral impact, as does Oscar-nominated Alfonso Cuarón collaborator Alex Rodriguez’ taut, capable editing. In Philip Ivey’s production design, the Morocco locations seamlessly double for war-ravaged Northern Iraq. But if the gritty, camo-and-clenched-jaw aesthetic is impeccably achieved, it is also well-established, especially in the first-person-shooter videogames that the plot increasingly emulates in its take-the-base, find-the-sniper, secure-the-building mini-quests. There is even a far-off head shot that elicits a little puff of pink blood and brain matter, and you half-expect a score to pop up on screen. “Mosul” often feels like “Call of Duty” interrupted by the occasional call to prayer.
An argument yields the insult that Iraq is barely even a country, formed by “a drunk British dilettante and some bureaucrats with bad maps” and there are anti-Kurdish comments directed at Kawa. But mostly, the screenplay is at such pains to make these men relatable that it glosses over cultural, religious or national differences, even at the expense of describing the enemy, who here, aside from the odd propaganda broadcast, could be any war-movie bad-guys: Nazis, Vietcong, Al-Qaeda.
“We don’t talk about American intervention anymore, we’re past all that,” says Major Jaseem when Kawa wonders about calling in airstrikes, and that is a remarkable line to hear spoken by the Arabic star of an American movie produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of two “Captain America” installments and the highest grossing film of all time. But “Mosul,” despite noble intentions, is still an example of American cultural intervention — outwardly respectful of Iraqi ownership of this particular war wound, but in structure and style still reasserting Hollywood storytelling’s stranglehold over how war narratives unfold on screen. It makes the film’s appeal broader, but also flatter and more generic, as though it were called “Mosul” not because it’s the definitive tale of one battle-scarred city, but because otherwise you could forget where it’s set.