Mosul review: Netflix's war film invites polarised responses

Mosul review: Netflix's war film invites polarised responses
Mosul tells the gruelling story of the Nineveh SWAT team's battle against the Islamic State, but overlooks civilian testimonies and the sacrifices of ordinary people.
6 min read
30 December, 2020
Iraqi actor Suhail Dabbach plays the role of Major Jasem. [Netflix]
Beneath the warm applause welcoming the release of Mosul, the first Iraqi-accented Netflix production, there is a simmering cynicism. 

Among some Iraqi spectators the film roused disappointment and apathy, a disagreement that is about more than just taste. 

The story, riveting as it is, rehashes an article published in 2017 by The New Yorker, profiling a rogue SWAT team fighting the Islamic State (IS) in their native Mosul

The main thread centres around a Kurdish policeman, Kawa (Adam Bessa), who is taken under the wing of SWAT leader Major Jasem (Iraqi-born Suhail Dabbach). Kawa is grudgingly inducted into a secret mission, fighting shoulder to shoulder with recruits whose trust and respect he cannot seem to win.

The men are bound by trauma, having in common the loss of family slain by IS. Young Kawa, whose life is saved by Maj. Jasem, is key in capturing the complexities and contradictions of vigilantism, which he initially resists but ultimately succumbs to.

The film devotes itself to Luke Mogelson's account of the Nineveh SWAT team, which partially explains why Mosul lost favour with some Arab audiences. With criticisms of a story told from a journalistic vantage point, viewers also underlined the film's weak contextualisation and the indistinctness of the human stories featured on the sidelines of the main plot. 

As an Iraqi spectator it is difficult not to consider the aftermath of 'liberation' and the abandonment of post-IS Mosul by Baghdad

Civilians featured infrequently. We see them strewn in the streets, caught in the crosshairs of live gunfire exchanges, colluding with IS, or displaced and queuing for handouts. The details of who they were, are, and may become, are lost. 

This could however have been deliberate, to frame war's real casualties. But as an Iraqi spectator it is difficult not to consider the aftermath of "liberation" and the abandonment of post-IS Mosul by Baghdad, in addition to the harassment of citizens by militias that hold the ground that IS once did. 

Directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan and produced by the Russo brothers - with Iraqi expertise on hand from the Iraqi-Dutch filmmaker Mohammed al-Darraji - the 90-minute production transports viewers back to the final stages of the military operation to recapture the city. 

The production's intrigue in rogue fighters (all ex-policemen) is self-explanatory. It represents for filmmakers the perfect microcosm of a hyper-militarised and ethnically diverse society. 

The film does well to capture the team's multi-ethnic composition but says comparably less about Mosul's homogeneity and predominantly Sunni population and how these identities, and others, fed into the conflict. 

The action-thriller is not so much a story about Mosul's people as it is a war film centred on a vigilante force. It empowers men with nothing to lose who exact their revenge on IS, and those they suspect are affiliates, and undertake the self-assigned task of rescuing Mosul.

Carnahan directs consciously, teasing out these contradictions, with the help of an Arabic-speaking international cast, including Iraqi and Middle Eastern actors. 

The oft-seen hierarchy of white versus non-white characters, and the latter's inferiorisation on-screen, is eradicated, together with the "white saviour" wisdom seen across other war-film epics produced in Hollywood. The hero is not American or Western; he's Iraqi. 

Even this however feels a tad predictable. The story leaves much unsaid about the war crimes perpetrated in the context of these battles. Some viewers have argued that the film risks contributing to the normalisation of irregular forces in Iraqi politics, a state within a state and a challenge weighing heavily on Iraq's ruling prime minister.

The story told is neatly packaged, while in Iraq the reality is anything but coherent

Alternatively, this could be seen as posing important questions; are Iraqi state institutions capable of combating crime and terrorism unaided? Are war criminals in post-2003 "democratic Iraq" held to account?

Shortly after its release, the Iraqi Security Media Cell criticised the production for "undermining the Iraqi Security Forces in the context of Mosul's liberation," Interior Ministry spokesperson, Saad Maan, told the local press. 

The fast-tempo film takes viewers into the mazy alleyways of Mosul city, up close to the carcasses of surviving buildings and inside booby-trapped homes. The timeline of the battle is truncated, with the team having just three streets to clear, fighting relentlessly, earning themselves IS scalps along the way, and crossing paths with IS informants, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), orphans and the families left behind. 

An important scene in the film scrutinises the "Iraqi hero" during a fractious encounter between Maj. Jasem and an IRGC commander, of what is likely to be Kataib Hezbollah, as can be deduced from the insignia and bandanas donned. The scene depicts the two leaders, one Iraqi, the other Iranian, in competition. It captures the audacity of proxy forces and their dominance on the frontlines in Mosul - although no uniformed IRGC commander held a presence in reality. 

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Members of the Iraqi police service, attached to the Ministry of Interior, enjoy a healthy alliance with Iran-backed actors, beyond the "logistical alliance" referenced in the scene. Lines delivered by Maj. Jasem such as "Iraq without Saddam, the West, terrorists and an Iranian Colonel," and, "you're Iraqi too; or have you forgotten" feel wishfully sentimental when squared against a political landscape full to the brim with Iranian proxies

While the broader context of military operations is filtered to align with journalistic narratives, the film's visual representation is impressively accurate, given that the film was shot in Morocco.  

The incorporation of archival footage is key to the aesthetic created, allowing viewers to conceive of the scale of damage caused largely by aerial power. In certain scenes the dialogue is carefully crafted to deplore (and rightfully so) America's reliance on aerial bombardment, though the film fails to point out that the tally of victories scored by paramilitaries was only possible due to US aerial assistance. 

Overall, the story told is neatly packaged, while in Iraq the reality is anything but coherent. The task of holistically depicting Iraq's story might be a big ask, but when entering into the territory of Iraqi politics polarising reactions are unavoidable, which should only stimulate debate.

At a quick glance Mosul may deceivingly appear as an exaggerated tale of "forces of good, battling forces of evil," but beneath the surface a more quizzical wisdom guides its story. It is not without risks; mainly that audiences unfamiliar with the conflict may take what is presented without critical engagement. This would be a disservice to Mosul's tale and encourage the tokenisation of "Iraqis" on screen. 

It is integral to also remember that not enough time has passed since the city was recaptured, and wounds are still healing. In dedicating its story almost entirely to a rogue militia outfit's mission to right the wrongs inflicted on them, the film pushes aside other potential subplots dedicated to civilian testimonies and the sacrifices of the ordinary masses.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi