Imagine a typical action movie. Now picture that movie set in ISIS-controlled Iraq, a brutal war enduring between the terrorist organization and a small band of Iraqi SWAT fighters. Now imagine that this team is full of interesting, unique, and sympathetic characters, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. Meld that with strong performances and a historically accurate story and you will get Mosul, a film directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan that tells the story of the SWAT team’s perilous journey through the titular city of Mosul.
Arguably, the greatest strength of the film is its self-contained, small story. Mosul follows the fighters in more or less real time, allowing for easy immersion into a story that tells itself without interruption or time jump. A surprising yet apt aspect of the film was Carnahan’s choice to begin and end the film at seemingly random points. Other than a bit of expository text, Mosul throws the audience immediately into the middle of an action scene, and ends on what feels like the middle of a scene. While this conclusion was admittedly jarring, it expresses brilliantly the nature of the SWAT team’s lives: they simply go from battle to battle, with no end in sight. Like the characters, the audience leaves the film not knowing what will happen next.
Despite the ever present conflict, Mosul also takes great care to flesh out its protagonists. There are many moments throughout the film in which the team (and thus the audience) takes a rest, enabling its characters and their relationships to grow and change. The main protagonist is Kawa, a young new recruit to the SWAT team played by Adam Bessa. Due to his inexperience with the team, the film is largely observed through Kawa’s eyes, making him easily sympathizable; he is also the most dynamic character, going from the insecure recruit to a battle-hardened warrior committed to the team. Nonetheless, Mosul’s most interesting character is Major Jasem, portrayed by Suhail Dabbach. The leader of the SWAT team, Jasem is an extremely multifaceted character, ranging from empathetic liberator to stern leader to raging combatant in a matter of minutes; the brilliance of this character is only bolstered by Dabbach’s incredible performance, allowing Jasem to dominate the screen while simultaneously humanizing him.
Major Jasem (center), played by Suhail Dabbach, leads his men through the danger-ridden streets of Mosul. The SWAT team spends nearly the entirety of the film in similarly dangerous situations.
By contrast, and by the nature of the film’s tight-knit story, the ISIS fighters are faceless, nameless enemy soldiers, with no main antagonist to speak of other than the organization in its entirety. While this lack of an interesting villain would ordinarily weaken a film, Mosul is actually enhanced by it. Through their anonymity, and by appearing suddenly and frequently throughout the city, the ISIS soldiers almost feel like part of the environment; that, combined with the already-bleak, colorless, wartorn nature of Mosul, makes the central conflict practically one of character against environment, with every corner and alley potentially concealing a threat. In doing this, the film emphasizes not only the incredible danger and horror its own characters endure, but sheds light on the nature of the lives of those who really lived under such conditions. Additionally, despite their lack of humanization, the ISIS soldiers are still a formidable threat, with the SWAT team consistently losing men– men the audience has come to commiserate with through the lulls– and struggling time after time to defeat their foes.
Overall, the film– available to stream on Netflix– is well worth the watch. The story runs at a fast, real-time pace, bolstered by frequent conflict, while at the same time creating a group of interesting protagonists with whom the audience can easily sympathize. A gritty, intense action film with a story worth learning, Mosul is, without a doubt, a movie worth its while.