Mosul nails its action spectacle and kinetic foundation, but it is ultimately only able to conceive of its subject matter in war movie clichés.
Yet another attempt at a topical, ripped-from-the-headlines war movie that wants to indulge in graphic, ultra-realistic combat while still framing its violence through a treacly moral lens, the new Netflix film Mosul is treading awfully familiar ground. There is at least some novelty to its milieu — here the ravaged Iraqi city of Mosul. A series of brief opening titles offers some basic contextual information; that Isis, here referred to as Daesh, is withdrawing from the city after years of fighting, and that one group of elite Iraqi fighters, known as SWAT, has been fighting them since day one, incurring heavy losses to their ranks and garnering a near-mythological reputation for toughness in the process. Right off the bat, writer/director Matthew Michael Carnahan (directing for the first time) plunges the viewer into the middle of a gun fight, as two police officers are pinned down by Daesh fighters only to be rescued in the nick of time by SWAT. Led by Jasem (a remarkable performance by Suhail Dabbach, whose stoic demeanor and hard features belie a benevolent paternal streak), the group immediately recruits the younger officer, Kawa (Adam Bessa), explaining that they need numbers for an impending mission. The trajectory that follows is reminiscent of Training Day, as Kawa learns the ropes and transforms from a shy, barely competent amateur into a hardened soldier with a thousand yard stare over the course of less than 24 hours.
Ultimately, Mosul winds up being half of a good movie. The combat sequences are aces, splitting the difference between Greengrass-style shaky cam and spatial coherence. It’s appropriately chaotic and bombastic, yet always legible. This is urban warfare, as men traverse narrow alleyways and cratered, claustrophobic buildings while contending with car bombs and rooftop snipers, where any open window could house a potential threat. There’s a documentary quality to scenes of the men traveling from point A to point B, clearing rooms or closing formation to provide cover from unseen foes. The film fascinates when honing in on these small, specific details; others, like bartering cigarettes for ammunition and bribing members of the military to get through checkpoints add to the sense of verisimilitude. But once the narrative proper settles into its men-on-a-mission template, it focuses less on tactics and instead zeroes in on Kawa, who’s not so much a character as an overly-obvious audience surrogate, incessantly asking questions purely for the benefit of exposition. The majority of the SWAT team is an undifferentiated mass of armored-up men gradually getting picked off. Only Jasem’s second-in-command Waleed (Is’haq Elias) gets any real characterization, as a jittery, chain smoking wreck who’s harboring some secret trauma.
As in his screenplay for The Kingdom, Carnahan frequently deploys children as cheap pathos, goosing an already horrific scenario with images of dead kids in a bid for gross sentimentality (most egregiously, in a moment that lingers on a stuffed teddy bear before cutting to a mother staring directly into the camera, just in case anyone missed the point). Like the famously melodramatic ending of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Carnahan can’t leave well enough alone and has to have his characters declare that there’s a bigger reason for all the fighting and killing. Not content to be merely a competent action-thriller, but too ham-fisted to score the emotional points it so desperately wants, Mosul winds up being neither here nor there. Despite the presence of actual Iraqi actors and full subtitles, this is still a white Western outsider using the cinematic grammar of Hollywood and the MCU-padded deep pockets of the Russo bros to document a conflict that Carnahan can only contemplate through war movie clichés.
You can currently stream Matthew Michael Carnahan’s Mosul on Netflix.