Retrograde (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): The final months of the Afghan War

It is a sad and bitter experience to observe what is so vividly presented in Matthew Heineman’s latest documentary film “Retrograde”, which is currently available on Disney+ in South Korea. Closely following what happened during the final months of the Afghan War in 2021, the documentary reminds us of the sheer futility of this 20-year war, and it is really depressing to see how this war eventually threw Afghanistan back into another reign of terror by those cruel and barbaric religious fanatics.

After showing how the situation was utterly chaotic in Kabul right before its eventual fall by the Taliban military in 2021 August, the documentary goes back to how things were already falling apart for the US military as well as the Afghan government military. No matter how much they tried to get things back in control, the Taliban military continued to expand its territory here and there in Afghanistan, and the situation became gloomier when the US government was about to decide whether it would really withdraw all of its soldiers from Afghanistan.

In case of a young Afghan general named Sami Sadat and those soldiers under his command, they had struggled hard against those Taliban soldiers, and you can easily see how much he was respected and trusted by his soldiers as an exemplary leader, but they all knew too well that they would be quite vulnerable if the US government announced the total withdrawal from their country. In case of several US military officers who had worked with Sadat for years, they were willing to help Sadat as much as possible, but they eventually could not do anything at all when President Joe Biden officially confirmed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2001 May.

Once the US military left Afghanistan completely a few weeks later, Sadat and his soldiers had no choice but to defend their country and government for themselves, and we see how the circumstance became all the more frustrating and dauting from them. No matter how much he tried, he and his soldiers became more disadvantaged on the front line day by day, and they even did not get enough support from the Afghan government. Within next several weeks, many regions and cities in Afghanistan were occupied by the Taliban soldiers one by one, and now Sadat and his soldiers had to make their last stand in a city not so far from Kabul, but their government was already crumbling down as showing more incompetence and foolishness.

Meanwhile, we get to know a bit more about Sadat while following his increasingly desperate military efforts. As a strong-willed man of valor and integrity with considerable dedication to his men, he certainly came to worry more about what might happen to him as well as his men if all eventually fell down as he feared, but he still tried to maintain his leadership even things got all the worse for him and others, and we come to admire him more than before, though we all know too well how the story would end for him and many others in Afghanistan.

In the end, Sadat and his soldiers had to withdraw as being overmatched by their opponents, and that quickly led to the fall of Kabul only two days later. Heineman and his two co-cinematographers Tim Crucza and Oliver Sarbil put their cameras quite close to the consequent chaos in the city, and that often places us amid thousands of civilians attempting to escape from the Taliban military by any means necessary. Needless to say, everyone looks quite desperate and terrified, and there are a number of brief but undeniably haunting shots which will linger on your mind for good reasons.

Fortunately, Sadat managed to escape, and some of his men as well as his close family members also got away from Afghanistan, but the situation is not exactly good for him at present. Besides already having received a death sentence from the Taliban government, he is not even allowed to enter US, and now he is stuck in UK as an exile, though he still hopes that he and his comrades may return to Afghanistan someday.

The documentary mostly maintains its detached attitude, but its devastating chronicle of the last months of the Afghan War gradually has us reflect more on how wasteful and meaningless this war was in many aspects. It seemed to end the reign of terror by the Taliban government at first, and most of us were glad about that, but, as the US government screwed up many things just like it did in Iraq at the same time, the country was only left all the more damaged while eventually tumbling into another grim period of oppression and terror. Sure, it was supposed to be about capturing the man responsible for 9/11 as soon as possible, but, what do you know, the war did not help much that massive manhunt during next 10 years on the whole, and, above all, he was actually found and then eliminated in, surprise, Pakistan.

In conclusion, “Retrograde”, which was incidentally included in the shortlist for Best Documentary Oscar around the end of last year, is a solid piece of work, and Heineman, who has steadily impressed me since his Oscar-nominated documentary “Cartel Land” (2015), did an admirable job of filling his documentary with a considerable amount of verisimilitude. This is surely a feel-bad documentary, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its many harrowing human moments observed from another tragic historical moment in our time, and I assure you that you will not forget easily.

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