Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 8th, 2022
Retrograde (Matthew Heineman, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
Documentarian Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts) is nothing if not a physically courageous man, throwing his life on the line for the sake of his art. In his Oscar-nominated 2015 Cartel Land, he placed himself in serious danger while following raids on Mexican drug cartels. He’s back at it in Retrograde, a dispiriting and frequently harrowing look at the final days of American presence in Afghanistan and the brutal aftermath. However, despite the cinematic bravado on evident display and the unquestionable pathos of the situation at hand, the finished movie, even if stunning in many ways, presents a surprisingly one-dimensional portrait of events. What’s lacking is needed context to better ground the current tragedy in the bumbling ineptitude of the past 20 years.
After a brutal prologue at the Kabul airport in August 2021, we start in relative peace, the American Special Forces battalion in which Heineman is embedded still on patrol, working closely with their Afghan partners to maintain public order. Foremost among these collaborators is General Sami Sadat, whose father was once imprisoned by the Taliban. He has no desire to see his country slip backwards into Islamic authoritarianism. Everyone wonders what will soon happen, as Joe Biden has just been inaugurated and no one yet knows if he will honor the deal Trump negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw all forces by the start of May 2021. And then the word comes down: it’s on, time to pack up. And this right after Sadat expresses how he could never imagine such a thing happening.
From there, depression and then chaos eventually ensue. The term “retrograde” means, in military terms, to relocate or destroy equipment on the ground to prevent the enemy from gaining access to it. As one of our onscreen army protagonists declares: “Retrograde means you’re shitting in the trench.” Given the trillions of dollars the war has cost the United States, it is galling to see the destruction that the soldiers unwillingly must perform. Waste upon waste, and that’s not even counting the human lives lost.
Once the Americans depart, Sadat is on his own, fighting constant battles both with the Taliban and the crumbling Afghan government (over equipment). Heineman stays with him, profiling his frustrations over the lack of resolve to resist. Things go from bad to worse, and then we return to that airport scene and the desperation of so many to get out on the last military transports. It’s for moments like this that we can be grateful that there was someone like Heineman there to document the misery that political corruption can bring.
But that’s where my admiration stops. It’s not enough to simply point the camera at trauma, no matter the risks you take to be there. Having captured the footage, Heineman owes it to the people he photographs to illuminate how they got here. True, he starts with an audio montage that brings us from George W. Bush to Obama to Trump and on to Biden, each leader sounding less confident in the mission. But even as he demonstrates strong narrative instincts in that regard, he fails in others, missing an opportunity to explore the unforgivable misuse of capital from the start of what Bush called “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
And then there is the additional question of methods. For every beautifully composed shot of landscapes and human figures, there are sequences that astound not so much in their fearlessness but their foolhardiness. As Sadat backs away from sniper fire, he warns Heineman to retreat. Why should he need to worry about a film crew when bullets are flying? Such distractions only intensify the risks for folks like Sadat. There are potentially devastating costs to the Heineman school of filmmaking, the ethics of which are clearly problematic.
So, on the one hand he deserves kudos, but on the other hand some serious soul-searching is in order. As blown away as I was by Cartel Land, I now pause to consider whether such admiration is always due in all cases. One thing is not in doubt, though, which is that “We, the People” have failed our Afghan partners. We should never have invaded, but once there, we owed them more than they got. Hundreds of thousands of deaths later (many at the hands of the Americans, something never discussed here), and they’re back at square one, if not worse. Now that’s retrograde, for sure.