'Mosul': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Generically gripping.

Matthew Michael Carnahan directed this Arabic-language, Iraq-set thriller, which is based on a New Yorker article and was produced by the Russo brothers.

With Mosul, the members of the Nineveh SWAT team, so vividly portrayed in the New Yorker article "The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS" by Luke Mogelson, finally get their own movie. And cinema audiences will finally get a film about war in the Middle East from the point of view of the locals, even if these particular locals are renegades armed to the teeth. While it was produced by Anthony and Joe Russo, who have directed four MCU films including Avengers: Endgame, this feature is stylistically more akin to films like Paul Greengrass' Green Zone or Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker — though, of course, it's entirely spoken in Arabic.  

Mosul was written and helmed by scribe-turned-director Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z), who always favors a sense of you-are-there authenticity over any kind of deeper characterization or geopolitical context. The result is generically gripping but ultimately not something that lingers. The pic premiered in Venice in an out-of-competition slot and bowed in Toronto as a Special Presentation. 

The war drama is set in the titular metropolis in northern Iraq at the end of spring 2017, when ISIS fighters finally started to leave the city they had conquered in 2014. They sustained heavy losses in the Battle of Mosul, which started in October 2016 and finally came to an end early summer of the following year. 

Even though one of Mosul's many nicknames is "City of a Million Soldiers," the renegade team we follow consists of just a handful of men. (They are renegades because they have stopped obeying orders from their superiors, cutting their own path instead.) In the opening, 21-year-old Kurdish kid Kawa (Tunisian actor Adam Bessa, with the widest possible grin in the Middle East) is caught in a chaotic shootout with ISIS. He is finally saved by the Nineveh SWAT team — they are named after Nineveh Governorate, of which Mosul is the capital — headed by the hardened Major Jasem (Iraqi actor Suhail Dabbach, The Hurt Locker). Without much pomp, Jasem invites Kawa to join them. It's a prerequisite that each member of the elite corps has either been injured by ISIS or had one of their family members killed. Since Kawa just lost his uncle, he qualifies.

Not that there seems to be much time or even desire to check those credentials. It soon becomes clear why, as the men immediately move on to the next target and around each corner they could find themselves ambushed by ISIS or tiptoeing through a minefield. In a city partially reduced to rubble, where rebels might be moving out but they are still around and not exactly in a good mood, you can't be too picky about your soldiers because you may need to replace them sooner than you think. 

Carnahan, here dipping into similar territory to some of the other movies he has written, such as Peter Berg's Saudi Arabia-set The Kingdom, wisely chooses newcomer Kawa as the entry point into the team, so the audience and the protagonist can find their bearings at the same time. This has to happen quickly, however, as the greenhorn won't have to wait long before being called upon to deal with some snipers not even out of their teens who are hiding on a roof. Reinforcing the sensation that Kawa's coming-of-SWAT-age is happening at an accelerated pace is the fact that the film is almost set in real time, as Carnahan follows the men over the course of a single afternoon. In ISIS territory, one second you're the newcomer, in the next you might be the veteran with the most experience.

Their Humvees are decked out with skull-and-crossbones symbols more fit for pirates than fighters, suggesting they might supplement their diet of Kuwaiti soaps with repeat viewings of Mad Max or Pirates of the Caribbean. But Carnahan otherwise admirably keeps the references to American culture and the U.S. in general to a minimum. There's one barbed comment about Americans having a tendency simply to bomb everything in Iraq "because they don't have to rebuild it." Indeed, one of the loveliest touches in an otherwise very tough film is the sense that these men are fighting on home ground and for their own city. It is exactly this kind of feeling that's missing, for obvious reasons, from other U.S.-made films set in the region. This is what sets Mosul apart from its peers. 

That said, the reunion of one of the SWAT members, Waleed (Jordanian actor Is'haq Elias), with his wife (Baghdad-born Hayat Kamille) and young daughter (Seema Al-Khalidi) feels a little too much like a Hallmark moment. The sun floods into the room through billowing orange curtains, creating a golden glow as the military man embraces his wife and daughter and, in a loving gesture, undoes his young girl's headscarf. What's meant as a cathartic emotional moment registers instead as something a little too syrupy and obvious — pandering to Western tastes in a movie that's otherwise been all steel, sweat, blood and sand.

One of the other reasons this particular moment doesn't quite click emotionally is that Jasem is never very forthcoming with the exact goal or the itinerary of his crew. This has the advantage that it keeps both his men and the viewer always in the now and unsure of what will happen next, but it also makes the overall narrative arc feel fragmented, as there is no clear goal for anyone beyond survival and trying to take down ISIS fighters wherever they might appear.

A family reunion might have popped more if it had been clear throughout the film that Waleed — and indeed the others — were unsure they would ever see their families again. Protecting their families is obviously one of the main reasons they are fighting, but now that just sits there in the background like a sentiment you expect from any soldier, not something tied into each character specifically. Indeed, beyond Kawa and Jasem, most characters sort of blend together, whether they are on the SWAT team or not.

As a visceral, immersive experience, however, Mosul works just fine. Mexican editor Alex Rodriguez (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) paces the film beautifully, alternating between quiet lulls and action scenes that provide a disorienting adrenaline overload. The production design by New Zealander Philip Ivey (Elysium, District 9), working on location in Morocco, is also impressive, with his sets finding the right balance between destruction, a kind of eerie beauty that creeps into abandoned war zones, and the very necessary sense that there might still be something worth saving in this city. Everything is captured by DP Mauro Fiore (Avatar, The Kingdom) in gritty widescreen images that put the viewer in the middle of the action, sometimes going a little overboard in the sense that it occasionally feels like watching a shoot-'em-up video game. The Americans don't have to rebuild it, indeed.

Production companies: AGBO, Conde Nast Entertainment
Cast: Suhail Dabbach, Adam Bessa, Is'haq Elias, Qutaiba F. Abdelhaq, Ahmad El Ghanem, Hicham Ouaraqa, Mohimen Mahbuba, Thaer Al Shayei, Abdellah Bensaid, Faycal Attougui
Writer-director: Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the New Yorker article "The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS," by Luke Mogelson 
Producers: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Jeremy Steckler, Dawn Ostroff 
Executive producers: Todd Makurath, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Mohamed Al-Daradji, Patrick Newall, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Hu Junyi 
Cinematographer: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Philip Ivey
Costume designer: Mary E. McLeod
Editor: Alex Rodriguez
Casting: Nicholas Mudd
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Sales: Endeavor Content

In Arabic
101 minutes