The ancient Iraqi city of Mosul—actually, its rubble—stars in the opening shots of the new movie Mosul. The scene is one to which we’ve become accustomed and thus inured. Did human beings ever live among those piles of rock and chunks of concrete, cities and villages reduced to a modern Stone Age?
We don’t know and maybe we don’t want to know. “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the lead-up to the Iraq war, a conflict that would give the planet a large portion of its 80 million refugees, not to mention ISIS. “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Of course the soul-dead bureaucrat wasn’t spewing that mumbo jumbo about human beings—he was wink-winking around the lie that Iraq was hiding nuclear or chemical weapons, the Bush administration’s chief excuse for war with Baghdad. But he might as well have been talking about the nameless people of Iraq, who endured “shock and awe” and a brutal civil war only to find themselves living under a playbook called The Management of Savagery, deployed by the fanatics hatched in postwar chaos.
From Comics to War
Mosul, out now on Netflix, was produced by Agbo, the company founded by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, who hold the record for directing the highest-grossing film in history, Avengers: Endgame. Mosul was inspired by Luke Mogelson’s New Yorker article that followed an Iraqi SWAT team in the waning days of the fight to drive Da’esh (ISIS) out of Mosul. They hired a cast of Arabic actors, filmed in Morocco, and are releasing it in Arabic with English subtitles.
The film tells the story of a rapidly dwindling band of brothers, Mosul cops on the Ninevah SWAT team who wander in the ruins, attempting to eradicate Da’esh while re-uniting with—or avenging—family members lost to the terrorist sect. Outfitted in tactical gear, American weaponry, and a few Humvees, they shoot their way through the rubble for an hour and a half of screen time, blasting away collaborators and fanatics, slicing off a few heads, and bartering cigarettes with an Iranian colonel, before finally reaching the emotional climax of the film, a reunion that speaks to the men’s helplessness and the lasting damage to women and children.
The movie is so filled with detonations, groans, and gore that, the Arabic language aside, it feels more like the dark Marvel comic the Russos are known for than a historical biopic. It’s almost impossible to understand these men emotionally until the final scene, when it becomes clear that they are so damaged they can never come back. Of course, the film is also nearly female-free, except when a woman, finally liberated from a Da’esh ogre, utters the words “I’m pregnant.”
When Donald Rumsfeld made his nonsensical “known unknowns” comments, he might as well have been talking about the nameless people of Iraq.
An American film featuring Middle Eastern actors speaking Iraqi Arabic is a milestone, but when the film premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, some criticized it for being a “white savior” effort, written and directed by American Matthew Michael Carnahan. Hashtags such as #NoOrientalism and #DecolonizeHollywood greeted the release. “There are Arabic creatives who can tell this story. It’s deeply offensive that White Hollywood is even considering this sh*t!” tweeted one.
When I interviewed him during the filming, Joe Russo said there was never any discussion about releasing the movie in English. “Agbo is progressive and we are looking to tell stories other people are too conservative to tell,” he explained. “It is incredibly important that we start teaching each other how to empathize, because what’s more detrimental than anything is how we otherize. We wanted to honor the people who had died in a place where death is commonplace. It is a tragedy so profound it is almost unimaginable.”
This film, about men fighting for the right to go home and eat dinner with their families, tells the most ancient of tales. But in its numbing volume of violence, it also fulfills the expectations of the modern all-American audience, the audience of Avengers, habituated to consume, without blinking, brutality in entertainment, in national policy, and in technology. When real war is waged like a video game—literally, in the case of drone killings, and figuratively, with news footage serving up clips of the spectacular products of Raytheon, Lockheed, and Boeing—it’s easy to leave the human carnage among “the unknown unknowns.”
Mosul is an experiment in evading that problem, and it succeeds, a little bit.
Mosul is available to watch on Netflix
Nina Burleigh is the author of The Trump Women: Part of the Deal