Today’s ubiquity of cameras has almost nothing to recommend it. For every injustice captured by a videographer, a hundred moments flood through social media to incite, embarrass, or produce envy and discontent. But despite the cruelty and anxiety unleashed by this torrent of imagery, the convenience of modern camera equipment has also made it a dramatically easier task for documentarians to get close to their subjects. One positive result of that has been that a good number of the non-fiction films that have come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been about the people caught up in them as much as about the conflicts themselves.
Matthew Heineman’s remarkable Retrograde—a National Geographic film showing at some festivals now and hitting theaters and streaming later this year—is one of the most unsettlingly intimate examples of this kind of filmmaking. Ostensibly, it’s a document of the last nine months of the Western-backed Afghanistan government in 2021. The film’s scope ranges from furious combat in the country’s dry opium-producing southwest to the chaotic end in Kabul when tens of thousands of Afghans scrambled to escape from the victorious Taliban. But while Heineman has produced an epic story, he tells it primarily through a small group of people caught up in the storm toss of history.
Retrograde opens with an eerie pan across distant mountains while American presidents make disembodied pronouncements over 20 years: from George W. Bush’s declaration of the invasion to Donald Trump’s threat that “our commitment is not unlimited” and Joe Biden’s insistence that he would “not repeat the mistakes” of the past. From there, Heineman tracks the end stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (a name ever destined for blackly comedic usage), zeroing in on a dusty outpost in Helmand province.
There, in January 2021, a dozen Green Berets were training Afghan National Army (ANA) forces under the command of General Sami Sadat to carry on the fight against the Taliban once the Americans had pulled out. Though the Americans are not on the surface the closest of allies—they have to train via interpreter—their bond with the English-speaking Sadat at least is unmistakable.
At first, Retrograde exists in a familiar scrum of warfare: combat, chaos, and waiting for the next shock of action. Unlike many other accounts of the war, though, it shows the Americans at a remove from the front-line fighting and engaging in a curious waiting game. They can assist (air support, medevacs) but are largely just hoping they can get Sadat’s men trained up to hold up without American support once the Trump-brokered peace deal necessitates their withdrawal. Though long-awaited, Biden’s announcement of the May 1st pullout is greeted by the Green Berets with barely suppressed disbelief and anger. One curtly assesses how the long war is ending: “This isn’t a win.”
The Americans quickly start their “retrograde” plan: destroying material they don’t want falling into the hands of the Taliban. On the one hand, it is represented as a dispiriting and unglamorous way to end war (at least one country’s part in it). But the way Heineman captures it, even without leading narration, a sequence where soldiers grimly detonate munitions and smash the windows of vehicles they cannot take with them, comes across as a neatly succinct comment on hubris and waste.
Retrograde takes on a far more personal tone as the Americans recede from the battlefield. The Taliban advance steadily and almost entirely unseen, unlike in Jamie Roberts’ Escape from Kabul (a more straightforward, ripped-from-the-headlines HBO documentary on the last days), which includes interviews with civilians and the Taliban. Heineman’s approach is similar to earlier films, like 2015’s Cartel Land: hovering about the action rather than interviewing anyone directly, capturing the off-hand comments and unspoken tensions of groups of men whose certainties are eroding in front of their eyes.
Trying to keep up spirits is Sadat. A firm but gentle-seeming leader, he carries the legacy of resistance (the Taliban jailed his father in the 1990s) with surprising ease, even as he watches his men slowly come apart without the resolve provided by the Americans and their superior equipment. Retrograde builds a horrible momentum as Heineman, shooting terrifyingly close to the action (at one point, the camera operator is on an Afghan helicopter taking heavy fire and seemingly on the verge of crashing), tracks the inexorable advance of the now-emboldened Taliban against a fragmenting ANA.
Though the boyish, cigar-smoking Sadat strives to pump up his men with rallies and grand talk, the realities of a demoralized force and a listless leadership are simply too much. The look on Sadat’s face when hearing of a listless hash-smoking officer whose men were surrendering says volumes about the odds against true believers like him.
Although occasionally getting in the thick of the action, Heineman shoots much of Retrograde with an elegiac tone, balancing jittery scenes of wounded soldiers in a clinic with more quietly watchful moments that contrast the landscape’s ancient beauty with the ever-closer crack of rifle fire. As the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, seizing town after town from the rapidly dissolving ANA, Retrograde cuttingly illustrates just how ephemeral any of the successes from the previous 20 years had been.
Climaxing with the apocalyptic finality of August evacuations from Kabul, Retrograde fills the viewer with a very specifically gutting kind of sadness. Given the corruption and lack of planning that set the stage for the almost overnight collapse of the Afghan state, Retrograde provides no romantic view of what has been lost as the last C-17 cargo planes packed full of refugees lift off over Kabul.
It is impossible to watch Heineman’s film and not imagine how much more the people left behind have yet to lose.