The early 2010s saw one of the darkest chapters of Middle Eastern history. After 9/11 and the Iraq War, the country of Iraq was left in tatters and without a real leader to guide it, but as the United States withdrew themselves from the region, a different enemy reared its ugly head: ISIL. The evil militant group attacked when the region was most vulnerable and spread its ideology and message far and wide across the Arab world and the West. The damage and the death as a result of their attacks have permanently damaged not only the people, not only the country, but the very reputation of this beautiful and proud culture itself.
The story of Mosul, therefore, is one based on the Nineveh SWAT team that lost many of their loved ones to ISIL and their resolve to exact vengeance upon them. Produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film takes inspiration from an article published in The New Yorker, The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS, and its horrifying accounts of the conflict that took place in the eponymous city of Mosul between the years 2014 and 2017. First-time director Michael Matthew Carnahan tackles the heavy subject matter of the film, with the stars Adam Bessa (Kawa), Suhail Dabbach (Major Jasem), and Ishaq Elias (Waleed) leading the cast. We at DiscussingFilm had a chance to ask Joe Russo himself about their involvement in Mosul, and why they were passionate about it. More specifically, their faith in this first-time director:
“Matthew is a very passionate, very emotional artist and when he gets excited or passionate about something, he can’t let it go. He’s also very politically minded, thematics are incredibly important to him. This was a story that made me cry when I read the article, my brother cried, it made Matthew cry. The three of us said, “This is something that we have to use our lifeline to help get made.” So like any artist, we respond to other artists who are passionate, because it’s next to impossible to get a film made and someone has to be the engine behind that, and Matthew is a very gracious engine, including another filmmaker like Mohamed.
He was very gracious, collaborative, and humble in trying to tell the story in the most realistic and authentic way possible by working directly with Mohamed, the former SWAT members, and an all-Iraqi cast. Something we would encourage is that we tell each other stories, because it gives us insight into each other. And I think that’s in really short supply in the world at the moment, and this was an incredible experience for Anthony, Matthew, and I. In making this movie, we learned an incredible amount about a part of the world that we had a limited understanding of.”
From a production standpoint, the film is quite masterful in making you believe this is a war-torn Iraq. Though many would have believed it anyway, as a half-Iraqi man myself, I appreciated the attention to detail. Little details that you would not think to pay attention to such as the branding on water bottles are completely accurate, and as far as language of the film, most of the actors speak with a perfect Iraqi accent. The exception being the lead character Kawa, as a couple native Iraqi speakers might take issue with certain pronunciations of words and phrases. Though I must note that it’s possible that he is meant to be Kurdish and thus excusing the accent, but the movie doesn’t make that entirely clear.
Being a war drama, Mosul uses a typical handheld technique, commonly known as ‘shaky cam’, to emphasize the more grounded take on the conflicts presented. While effective in most of the film, it can be totally nauseating in other parts. Luckily, there is some variety and it is a gorgeously shot picture overall, with some wonderful usage of lighting and framing. In keeping with the technical side, unfortunately, one of the biggest faults of the film is a lack of good English subtitles. At best, it competently translates the language at its most literal, and at worst, it omits certain dialogue entirely and changes the entire meaning of some dialogue that doesn’t adequately suit the scene. As a result, the naturalistic dialogue of the film is reduced to trite phrases that are overused in English.
The story follows Kawa, a local police officer defending himself from ISIL insurgents before being saved by a rogue SWAT team lead by Major Jasem looking to recruit some soldiers in their cause. Kawa, being a young and naive man, questions what exactly their goals are or what they’re even doing here, but frequently gets ignored. He’s recruited into their team, while his much older partner is asked to go back to the police station. From there, Kawa joins them on their journey to reach an ISIL hideout.
You learn about many of those within the SWAT team, their motivations, and their backstories. What separates this from other movies of a similar genre is that their conflicts are very realistic and are ingrained to the plot, with multiple repeat viewings making it clear that they weren’t just “thrown in”. For example, the second-in-command of this team, Waleed, is shown to be hostile when Kawa brings up a negative opinion of having a family at this point in time. It may seem obvious in the moment but the movie rarely, if at all, refers to Waleed’s family again for the next hour and a half until the final scene of the movie, delivering a heartbreaking payoff.
A lot of the members of the SWAT team have subtle character moments that really add up to a layered cast of characters. The most layered of which is Major Jasem, someone whose remarkable writing is set up from his very first lines. He’s introduced as a tough-as-nails commander who is equally as funny as he is terrifying when he needs to be. Over the course of the film, you get many, many character moments that really define him. One moment can be found early in the film, where in his race against time to leave that part of Mosul, he finds two children carrying their dead parents on a gurney. Jasem breaks his tough guy persona to beg and plead with them to join him so they can get him to safety, all the while the rest of his team yell at him for losing precious time. In the end, he was only able to convince one of the boys, promising him that they can rebuild the city. He goes as far as to find this boy a family to take care of him.
After this moment, it becomes abundantly clear that he’s the breakout star in the film, as he shares fun banter and comradery with his squad, on top of learning of his backstory as a homicide detective earlier in the film. His presence as a leader is felt when he refers to his fellow team as his sons, and even when you hardly learn about some of them, you can really feel the pain he feels in losing them. As he emphasizes with Waleed, his second-in-command, he’s tired. He pushes a lot of leadership decisions to him because he knows he could be next in line to die.
Kawa is the perspective character, and one that’s very endearing. He asks plenty of questions about the nature of their mission, why they recruited him, and what’s even going on. He’s perceptive, noticing that the team bribe their way past the military, he naturally asks why they would even need to do that. As the film progresses, and he has more run-ins with ISIL insurgents, he’s forced to act and kill to save not only his own life, but the lives of his fellow team. His distrust of the mission fades when he’s put in life-or-death situations, witnessing citizens being shot at by these insurgents, and having to act on it.
Their goal to attack ISIL’s hideout to drive them out of Mosul was formulated by Jasem himself while still in the Iraqi army, but under internal bureaucracy, the plan was scrapped. Highlighting an issue that was present in the real world, this moment pays off the bribery shown earlier as well as providing its own commentary on the failure of the Iraqi government. Kawa shuts him down after getting this information, telling him that he doesn’t need to learn about the plan. He’s committed to stopping ISIL regardless.
Though you only get this in small nuggets, the commentary present in the film goes a long way in giving the film additional context. Harkening to the real-life conflict, after one of the SWAT members suggests asking American soldiers for help, it’s quickly thrown out of the window when they think America is inadvertently responsible for helping to create ISIL themselves, and even if they could help, Jasem points out that they’d be considered as war criminals for their tactics. This moment is brief but important and striking nonetheless, showcasing how truly desperate this war has gotten.
But all of that pales in comparison to the best moment of the film and the pinnacle of commentary on Iraq/Iran relations, Jasem and a colonel in the Popular Mobilization Forces find themselves in a sticky situation and strike a deal with each other. The colonel is an absolutely wonderful character despite his brief appearance in the film, giving an almost flamboyant performance while simultaneously being the most intimidating character in the film. Jasem is led to his hideout and the sequence that follows is nothing short of masterful, including a tense scene where Kawa comes face-to-face with the traitor from earlier while Jasem and the colonel get into a heated debate on the legitimacy of Iraq and Iran’s real-life involvement with the region. Iraqi viewers are sure to find relevance and even relatability in this moment of the film.
Though the final scene isn’t a storming of the enemy base like it was built up throughout the entire film, the movie was never concerned with bombastic action scenes. This final scene is perfect because it highlights the real cost of the war with ISIL beyond the physical conflicts. It was necessary to end the film here because it leaves you on a note of reflection, rather than a sappy ending where the remainders of ISIL are killed and the heroes win out. The final moments of Mosul highlight just what exactly the film is about. It’s not concerned with the actual fighting despite the impressive action sequences. The film shows greater emphasis on the characters, as through the rich dialogue, embody the spirit of Iraq. The country has suffered plenty over the last two decades, losing more than just its cities and the citizens that inhabit them. For viewers unfamiliar with the situation, it shines a light on the true horrors it has brought on the people.
Everything, from the characterization, to the look and feel of the world, to its brilliant screenplay, it brings this lifeless part of Iraq to life. Stories about soldiers and terrorism in the Middle East aren’t exactly uncommon, which places a stigma on what the region is actually like, but this story was not only necessary to enlighten the damage this conflict had brought, but it also humanizes the people. From the way they speak, to the way they act, it is a true showcase of the hope, perseverance, and the heart of the Iraqi people.
This is a story that will be most appreciated by Iraqis, and being half-Iraqi myself, I found it wonderful to see real representation on not just the harrowing truths of this conflict, but just how unique the people of this country are. Everyone from Kawa, Jasem, Waleed, and the many other characters paint a beautiful picture, with the performances truly drying that paint. Despite the inaccuracies of the subtitles, particularly the Netflix version, this is a film worth watching to destroy any stigma you may have of the beautiful world known as Iraq.