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Non-Review Review: Mosul

Mosul is a frustratingly generic war movie, particularly given its potential as an exploration of Iraq in the wake of the American withdrawal.

Mosul is produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, best known as the directors of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The pair have leveraged the success of their work with Marvel to produce the work of other filmmakers, including past collaborators. 21 Bridges was a star vehicle for Black Panther leading actor Chadwick Boseman. Extraction starred Thor actor Chris Hemsworth and was directed by stuntman Sam Hargrave who had been Chris Evans’ stunt double on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Iraqqing up an impressive reputation.

Mosul marks the directorial debut of veteran writer Mathew Michael Carnahan, who collaborated with Adam Mervis on the screenplay for 21 Bridges. Indeed, the Middle Eastern War on Terror framing of Mosul feels like an organic extension of Carnahan’s interests as a writer; his first two screenplay credits were for The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, both released in 2007. As such, tasking Carnahan with making a boots-on-the-ground war film about the chaos in Iraq following the end of American involvement seems like a perfectly logical choice.

To his credit Carnahan understands the language and the logic of war movies. With its emphasis on handheld footage, Mosul occasionally feels like a spiritual companion to something like Blackhawk Down. With its recurring fascination with the absurdity and insanity of the horror of these sorts of conflicts, Mosul plays an extension of the core themes of Apocalypse Now. Indeed, Carnahan cycles through the conventional tropes and clichés of war movies with thrilling abandon, ensuring a propulsive sense of momentum and movement through the film.

“Mosul, Mo’ Problems.”

At the same time, Mosul feels a little too generic and too conventional. There are only a handful of sequences in the movie that feel like they relate specifically to this context, to the particulars of the war being waged in Iraq against Daesh. Too often, the film feels like it could be any war in any place at any time. It doesn’t help that Mosul positions itself more as an action movie and thriller than as a drama or study. Indeed, there are moments when Mosul feels just a little exploitative, as if attempting to extract pulpy thrills from a crisis that is still unfolding.

That said, Mosul hits most of its marks with enough skill and efficiency that none of these problems ever reach critical mass. Mosul bounces quickly from each set-up to the next, never allowing its audience or its characters the space to dwell on the familiarity of its set-up and execution. Mosul is a tightly constructed war thriller, even if it never fulfills its potential.

Commanding presence.

Mosul breezes incredibly quickly through familiar war movie clichés. Indeed, any sense that an audience watching the action unfold might be lost in the specific cultural context of the Middle East is handily waylaid by the reliability of classic narrative structures. Mosul only fleetingly attempts to understand the catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East as an inevitable outcome of a variety of historical and cultural forces, but more reliably frames it through the lens of classic storytelling beats.

The audience is introduced to Kawa as a local police officer in Mosul, who has found himself and his partner trapped by the militia that has taken so much of the city. Quickly, the city’s local S.W.A.T. team sweeps into action, dispatching the villains and rescuing both Kawa and his partner. The grizzled veteran commanding officer, Jasem, appears to take a shine to Kawa and immediately offers him the chance to join the S.W.A.T. team and make a difference in reclaiming the city from the fundamentalists that terrorise it.

There is very little fat here. There is little room for character development. There is no sense of who Kawa or Jasem are during this conversation. Instead, Carnahan leans on the audience’s familiarity with storytelling to guide them through the scene. When Jasem offers Kawa a baseball cap with “S.W.A.T.” branding on it, he might as well be Morpheus offering Neo the red pill in The Matrix. Much like any archetypal protagonist from Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker, Kawa is being offered a chance to be part of something bigger and to see how the world really works.

From there, Mosul moves through a variety of stock war movie tropes, barely pausing for breath between one story beat and another. The team is positioned as engaged in a dangerous mission behind enemy lines, struggling against all odds to move through territory controlled by enemy soldiers to safer ground. Then the ten-man squad stumbles across an enemy stronghold, and finds themselves forced to organise a daring strike against a numerically and tactically superior force. Along the way, there is a brief encounter with a rival faction, as tensions mount.

What’s hot and what’s S.W.A.T…

These elements are familiar enough that a casual audience member with no particular understanding of the conflict in Iraq will be able to follow along almost instinctively. This is the logic of stock war movies from The Dirty Dozen to Kelly’s Heroes to Fury. There are precious few surprises in structural terms, with the movie advancing in as linear a fashion as the unit itself, effectively cycling through a checklist of war movie clichés.

To give the movie some credit, there are moments when this works to the film’s advantage. Most obviously, the clear and immediate objective-focused and trope-driven storytelling means that the stakes in Mosul are always clear; the audience always understands what the characters are trying to accomplish in an immediate sense. More than that, Carnahan executed most of these elements efficiently. Mosul is perhaps a little over-reliant on shaky handheld footage to convey a sense of chaos and confusion, but it is often thrilling and efficient.

Shadow ops…

These war movie clichés extend to characterisation. Mosul bounces so quickly from setpiece to setpiece, and from one set of stakes to another, that there is little room to actively develop any of the characters beyond crude archetypes. Jasem is perhaps the most developed character in the film, a former detective who has reinvented himself as a brutal soldier. “I liked who I was,” he confides at one point. “I can never go back to it.” However, Jasem never feels like a fully-formed person, instead seeming to be constructed out of familiar war movie elements.

Throughout the film, much is made of the ambiguity of what the team is doing, with Kawa struggling to understand the underlying principles that are guiding Jasem’s elite unit. “What is your mission?” Kawa asks Waleed at one point. Waleed’s response is decidedly ambiguous, telling Kawa, “It’s our mission now.” There are occasionally moments of tension in the film as Kawa tries to understand exactly what the unit is trying to accomplish in a big picture sense. “I don’t know what we’re doing,” he complains. “I don’t know where we’re going.”

Things are not as they (Ja)sem…

Perhaps this ambiguity is designed to reflect the uncertainty and absurdity of the environment in which the characters find themselves; a grotesque forever war that has turned a once-vibrant city into an apocalyptic hellscape decorated by broken bodies and hollowed buildings. This ambiguity would be an interesting and compelling commentary on the horror unfolding in Iraq, of the quagmire that seemed to flow from the United States’ invasion in 2003.

However, that potentially interesting angle is erased by Carnahan’s heavy reliance on the familiar grammar of war cinema. Kawa might not know which direction is up, and he might not fully understand what Jasem is doing, but the audience is so familiar with how stories like this work that they are unlikely to share Kawa’s anxiety and uncertainty. Indeed, it makes sense that Carnahan’s last collaboration with the Russos was the script for 21 Bridges. Most of Mosul feels like a genre exercise rather than anything more insightful.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Indeed, there are a variety of classic war movies that are more interested in serving as an abstract commentary on the reality of war than as an exploration of a single conflict in particular. Apocalypse Now is very much a product of the Vietnam War, but it often plays as a deep dive into the primal forces that guide and shape mankind’s impulses towards destruction. Still, there is something that feels just a little uncomfortable about how Mosul approaches that generic approach to making a film about war.

To give Carnahan credit here, Mosul makes a point to hire actors from the region. It is shot in the local languages. Carnahan hired Son of Babylon director Mohamed al-Daradji as a cultural consultant. However, Carnahan is still an American director who is writing and directing a film about an internal conflict in Iraq, and structuring it in accordance with the conventions of western war movies. It is one thing for an American film director to build Apocalypse Now as an allegory about humanity’s capacity of war by focusing on American troops. This is something rather different.

Waylaid with Waleed…

There’s a very faint sense of voyeurism to Mosul, particularly in the way that so much of the movie is designed to be thrilling and exciting without dwelling on any of the specifics of the conflict that might disorient or confuse western audiences. This is a shame, particularly given the profile and the platform that the film has. To be clear, there’s no malice here. It does not feel deliberately exploitative. However, it does seem slightly uncomfortable.

That said, there are rare moments where a more compelling version of the film seems to suggest itself, such as an awkward detente between the team and another militia group that has aligned itself in opposition to Daesh. Jasem is surprised to find a uniformed Iranian soldier working with this group in a semi-official capacity, an acknowledgement of the gravity that the conflict has come to exert and the way that outside forces are sneaking in around the edge of the frame.

It is the one point where Mosul feels very particularly grounded in its specific time and place, as these parties enjoy an awkward peace – both sides understanding that a common enemy does not necessarily assure an ally. It’s that moment which captures what exactly Jasem hopes to accomplish, to build “an Iraq without Saddam, the West, Terrorists or an Iranian Colonel.” It’s a sequence that offers a broader view of the conflict and suggests why this particular conflict has evolved in the way that it has.

Mosul is a lean and efficient war movie. It is effectively directed, and moves propulsively from one set of war movie tropes to another, often without missing a step or a beat. It is constructed in such a way that any audience with any familiarity with the logic of war movies will never feel out of their depth or potentially alienated. However, this generic appeal comes at the cost of specificity. Mosul promises to take the viewers inside one of the most brutal conflicts of the twenty-first century, but instead operates at too clear a remove.

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