Stephen Arnell

Afghanistan on screen: 10 films about the conflict

Afghanistan on screen: 10 films about the conflict
12 Strong, Image: Shutterstock
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As US forces pull out from the nation’s longest running war, a look at some of the most thought-provoking films dealing with the Afghan conflict.

Unlike Vietnam, when mainstream movies about the war (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Rambo etc) really only caught on around 10 years after the fall of Saigon (April 1975), motion pictures set in Afghanistan were put into production relatively shortly after the struggle began.

Few (with one notable exception) really set the box office alight, the subject probably remaining too raw for audiences to regard as suitable popcorn fare. It’s interesting to note that some of the Afghan wars prior to the ongoing insurgency have also featured in motion pictures.

John Huston’s 1975 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King was set in the aftermath of one of The British Empire’s frequent interventions (three wars, excluding the current allied effort) in the country.

In the same year, Richard Lester brought George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash to the screen, which begins with Harry Flashman’s heroic last stand (he was in fact attempting to surrender) at Piper’s Fort during the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).

If you are looking for an Afghan angle, unsurprisingly the field is mainly confined to documentaries, small character-driven pieces, and western-funded dramas such as The Kite Runner (2007).

The Outpost (2020) Amazon Prime

Based on CNN’s lead Washington anchor Jake Tapper’s bestseller, The Outpost recounts the true story of the Battle of Kamdesh in Nuristan province, itself the setting for The Man Who Would Be King, which, (according to legend) is populated in part by descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers.

The Taliban’s siege of the idiotically sited COP Keating outpost resulted in the death of 8 US soldiers killed - one of the costliest for the allied forces in a single action during the conflict.

In return, the Taliban lost an estimated 150 insurgents, the tally boosted by air support that arrived late in the day to aid the besieged Americans.

Why did I say idiotically sited? Well, from watching the movie and examining a map of the area, the US military decided to locate the base in a narrow pass surrounded by incredibly steep hills – from which the Taliban could cheerfully lob mortar shells and snipe at the garrison all hours of the day.

Rod Lurie’s (The Last Castle) high adrenaline picture succeeds in putting the viewer into the heart of the action, although the night-time scenes were a tad murky for my liking.

As always with these types of movies, it is also occasionally difficult to distinguish who’s who in the cast due to the regulation buzz cuts and uniforms, but that’s a minor quibble.

Scott Eastwood (Clint’s boy), Milo Gibson (Mel’s kid) and Caleb Landry Jones put in solid performances; Orlando Bloom has a brief role as the camp commander offed by the rebels in the early scenes of the film.

For Bloom there may have been a sense of déjà vu working on The Outpost, as it bears a resemblance to his early role in Ridley Scott’s excellent Black Hawk Down (2001).

Red Snow (2019)

This small-scale Canadian drama has an interesting premise.

When First Nations (Gwich'in) Canadian soldier Dylan Nadazeau (Asivak Koostachin) is captured by the Taliban, they get more than bargained for, as he certainly doesn’t conform to their stereotype of a US/Canuck grunt.

Eerie Gwich’in incantations and throat singing rattle his captors in Marie Clements’ elliptical, impressionistic reverie.

For a more mainstream Canadian picture about the war, take a look at Hyena Road (2015), directed and starring Paul Gross (Constable Benton Fraser in TV’s Due South).

12 Strong (2018) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

If The Outpost has shades of ‘under siege’ films such as Zulu (1964), Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and We Were Soldiers (2002), 12 Strong harks back to ‘Horse Soldier’ Westerns such as John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965).

Taking a break from wielding Mjölnir, Chris Hemsworth plays the lightly fictionalised commander of a small team of Green Berets sent in soon after 9/11 to aid Northern Alliance (the military front, not the football league/building society) leader Abdul Rashid Dostum in his campaign against Taliban.

The rugged terrain necessitates the use of horses, something that US military intelligence apparently hadn’t got round to considering.

Nicolai Fuglsig’s only movie to date is a decent watch, but the near constant rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire during the picture becomes repetitive over the course of its overlong running time (129 minutes).

War Dogs (2016) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Another entry in the arms dealer subgenre, (see also Lord of War, Air America, and the aforementioned Charlie Wilson’s War) Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) would-be satire is a trifle too pleased with itself for my taste.

Riffing on the story of real-life arms dealers Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, who conned their way into a $300 million U.S. Army contract to supply ammunition to the Afghan National Army – which turned out to dodgy ‘unserviceable’ Chinese cast-offs.

Miles Teller is bland and unsympathetic as Packouz, whilst Jonah Hill channels his own Donnie Azoff from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Reviews of the picture were mixed and box office figures mediocre, but Phillips staged a comeback with his next film, the DC origin story Joker (2019).

Kajaki: The True Story/aka Kilo Two Bravo (2014) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

This low budget British effort works well within its acknowledged limitations, making a change from the gung-ho hollering of a fair few US movies set during the conflict.

Based on actual events, this tense nail-biter portrays the Kajaki Dam incident, when a unit of squaddies guarding the area near the Kajaki Dam (Helmand province) find themselves trapped in a Soviet-era minefield.

If you appreciated the minefield sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Kelly’s Heroes, Kajaki will take you to a whole new level of anxiety. The year before Kajaki, the similarly small scale The Patrol followed a group of British troops on a doomed mission in enemy country.

Lone Survivor (2013) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

The first of Mark Wahlberg’s five collaborations to date with director Peter Berg, Lone Survivor depicts the failed Navy SEALs mission Operation Red Wings, which aimed to track down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.

As with any picture that deals with an unsuccessful operation, the temptation is to think “why bother?”, but Lone Survivor is worth sticking around for.

The film at least tries to show empathy with the Afghans, with a few portrayed as willing to rat out the team, whilst others provide aid – although it is clear they are not exactly overjoyed with US presence in the country.

Forces spéciales aka Special Forces (2011) – Amazon Rent/Buy

French documentary producer/director Stéphane Rybojad tried his hand with an old school rescue mission flick in Forces spéciales, assembling a strong cast that includes Diane Kruger, Djimon Hounsou, Denis Ménochet, and Tchéky ‘Baptiste’ Karyo

When brutal Afghan warlord Zaief (Raz Degan) kidnaps Kabul-based journalist Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger)and her friend Amen (Mehdi Nebbou), French Special Forces have to swing into action before the pair’s likely grisly on-camera execution.

Do they succeed?  You’ll just have to watch the movie.

Red Sands (2009) – full movie available free to watch on YouTube – or Amazon Rent/Buy

A change of pace with this schlocky but watchable horror picture set in Afghanistan’s Parvan province during September 2002.

Echoes of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) as a group of US Special Forces take on an evil Djinn angered by the thoughtless destruction of its shrine by one of their number.

The great JK Simmons appears in the framing scenes of the investigation of the events, with Shane West (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as the sole survivor.

Theo Rossi, who was a memorable Shades in Netflix’s Luke Cage and played baddie Cummings in Zach Synder’s recent Army of the Dead (2021) is one of the first of the squad to bite the dust.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Director Mike Nichols' (The Graduate, Closer) last film concerned US covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen against the occupying Soviets (1979-89), effectively giving rise to the Taliban who later seized power from the warring factions of the Mujahideen. 

Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Emily Blunt and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the screenplay is penned by Aaron Sorkin and is therefore as pacy and playful as you'd expect. It's an interesting insight into the root causes of the 2002 conflict and a reminder for modern audiences of the U.S.'s involvement in Afghanistan prior to George W. Bush's invasion. 

Lions for Lambs (2007) – MGM, Amazon Rent/Buy

Robert Redford’s stagey polemic was not well received at the time of its release and, if anything, its reputation has further diminished with time.

Despite a cast that includes Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Redford himself, this poorly paced talkfest bludgeons the viewer with its finger-wagging take on the Bush administrations admittedly catastrophic Afghan policy.

Still, the intermittent mountaintop battle scenes between US Special Forces and the Taliban are pretty good, featuring Lone Survivor director Peter Berg and Michael Peña, who also played a similar role in 12 Strong.

Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) plays another smart-Alec student type, a role it appears he was born to play - at least until he grows visibly older.

And for those with a fatalistic (realistic?) view on how the US withdrawal will eventually end, you may be tempted by movies that include the fall of Saigon, such as The Deer Hunter (1978), Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983), Heaven & Earth (1993 – the final movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy) and somewhat improbably, Kong: Skull Island (2017).