Acclaimed documentary maker Matthew Heineman is known for his remarkable ability to stay close to subjects caught up in dangerous situations – be those fighting the drug trade in Latin America (Cartel Land), defying Isis occupation (City of Ghosts), or struggling to care for the sick during the Covid pandemic (The First Wave). This latest feature-length chronicle lays out an extraordinary insider’s view of the last months of the United States’ war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as seen from the point of view of the last Green Berets supporting the Afghan army led by Gen Sami Sadat. While those filmed, especially the local soldiers, clearly disagree with America’s withdrawal from the region, the film itself tries to maintain a posture of journalistic neutrality. Still, just like the American soldiers who must keep repeating that it’s not up to them, you can sense that Heineman and his crew recognise they’re watching a tragedy unfold.
Footage of the chaos at Kabul airport in August 2021 when crowds of desperate Afghans tried to secure places on the last American planes to leave bookend the film. Even if you were glued to the news when it was happening, you won’t have seen anything quite like the shots Heineman and his co-cinematographers capture here. Soldiers clumsily fire guns into the air, sort of, to scare off the hordes, and people claiming to have been translators, liaisons and support workers for the US military desperately wave paperwork trying to get through the line.
The material in between, covering roughly eight months leading up to the final evacuation, is almost serene in comparison, although the tension is still palpable. The crew captures footage of the combined forces using drones and remote-controlled weapons to take out Taliban personnel. However, the sheer relentlessness of the Taliban’s determination becomes clear, as Sadat and colleagues see their control of the country erode piece by piece. It seems almost frivolous to note this, but the hyper high-definition cinematography is both beautiful in a savage way and adds immediacy to the viewing experience.
• Retrograde is released on 11 November in cinemas.