Kandahar (Open Road Films, R)

It’s difficult not to compare Kandahar to the other recent film about a military escape mission involving an Afghan interpreter, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. Having now seen both films, it’s easy to see that Kandahar is the far superior film, although it still has its issues.

The Covenant was well-intentioned but felt inauthentic because it was haphazardly written by Ritchie and his co-writers and was basically made up whole-cloth. Neither film is based on true events from start to finish, but Kandahar at least has much better dialogue and a broader and more interesting point of view. As Middle Eastern conflicts are depicted here, there are very few good guys, and, as Gerard Butler’s character Tom Harris says, “Modern wars are not meant to be won.” This film admirably sticks with that nuanced point of view from beginning to end.

Screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune based his writing on his time working for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and his deployment in Afghanistan in 2013 during the Edward Snowden leaks. His knowledge of the inner workings of U.S. agencies and his focus on complex thematic material surrounding contemporary events are what make Kandahar work as well as it does. That, and Butler’s brooding charisma.

What doesn’t work so well is Ric Roman Waugh’s visual direction. He knows well enough to foreground LaFortune’s themes, but his action scenes leave a tremendous amount to be desired. As Tom and his interpreter Mohammad (Navid Negahban) flee to Kandahar province to meet a plane that will take them home, there are only two action beats that are any kind of interesting, and the first one goes on for far too long. It’s a night-vision sequence involving a gun-toting Gerard Butler single-handedly squaring off against a firing helicopter. Sounds incredible, right? It is — for the first few minutes of what feels like fifteen.

Another problem is that there are far too many characters in this thing. I can only fault LaFortune so much for this, as it seems like he genuinely wanted to get his point of view across and apply it to as many real-world players as possible. He achieves this, but often at the cost of us putting the story beats together slower than he does. It doesn’t help that the film is frequently poorly edited, threatening whiplash at every turn until about the third act.

However, I don’t want to be quite so harsh toward Kandahar’s faults because again, I very much respect its point of view. Tom is an undercover CIA operative whose actions are not always lauded by the film. Neither are the actions of his closest ally, Roman (Travis Fimmel), a much more embedded operative in many ways. Many characters appear to be mercenaries or double-agents. You could say that this in itself is a trope, and that the sheer number of characters present prevents many of them from being fully developed, and I suppose I couldn’t argue with that.

At the same time, I love that this film is about something more intrinsically human and interesting than just militarism. It is about what motivates people, organizations, and governments to stay in these protracted fights, and it rarely makes broad judgment calls or imbues a false sense of nobility about any of it. In that sense, the film retains its authenticity beyond plotting and dialogue and gets closer to the heart of the matter than many films of its type by attempting to present these conflicts as they really are. Though some of Kandahar’s execution can be as rocky as its location’s terrain, the film carries a palpable sense of grit because it is built on a firm foundation. | George Napper

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