Movie Review: Mosul (2020)

With our newspapers and TV news networks now devoting so much space and time to the pandemic, news from Iraq has been pushed aside. It was just a few years ago, though, when it was the daily lead story. Back in 2017, The New Yorker published an article by Luke Mogelson about a group of men from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul who joined the fight to rid their city of ISIS members. Known as the Nineveh SWAT Team (named after the ancient city located across the river from Mosul that is mentioned in the Book of Jonah), they were the only unit for which ISIS did not offer towba — the opportunity to switch sides. Once captured, Nineveh SWAT Team members were immediately executed. Their story has been dramatized in the film, MOSUL.

Not to be confused with the 2019 documentary of the same name, MOSUL kicks off with a pair of Iraqi policemen pinned down by a group of ISIS fighters who are intent on killing them. In the heat of the battle, machine gunfire can be heard in the distance and the ISIS fighters are either killed themselves or they run off like mice. They know there’s no third option. Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach, THE HURT LOCKER), the leader of the Nineveh SWAT Team that has rescued these men, assesses the situation and immediately drafts the young policeman, a Iraqi Kurd named Kawa (Adam Bessa), into their fold. The other policeman leaves to bury their fallen comrade, who also happens to be Kawa’s uncle. As the SWAT Team makes its way across the city dodging ISIS’ bullets, bombs and booby traps, Kawa asks them about their mission. The response, however, is slow to come.

Making his directorial debut, Matthew Michael Carnahan (21 BRIDGES; DEEPWATER HORIZON), who also wrote the screenplay, has put together a gripping story about a heroic band of brothers that most of us have never heard of. These men are highly motivated and not afraid to put their lives on the line for each other and for their families who have been living under ISIS’ brutal regime since the group captured their city in 2014. Unlike the spate of first-person shooter movies that have come to our screens in recent years, MOSUL eschews the formula of increasing levels of complexity as the story progresses. Here, as the men weave around and through the ruins of the city, the risk and the tension remain constant. This is war, not a war game. More than that, though, MOSUL is a human story as we learn about who these men are.

Watching the film’s opening scene, audiences could be forgiven for thinking that they watching real fighters and not actors. Before filming began, Carnahan put all the actors through a military boot camp to train them in weapons and tactics. I was convinced. Adding to the film’s realism, Carnahan hired an all-Arab cast with the actors coming from all over the Arab world. With the diverse accents, though, Bessa, in particular, had to have dialect coaching… not that most of us would know the difference.

MOSUL premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and was released on Netflix in some markets last November. It’s opening in our cinemas in Hong Kong on Thursday (June 17th). While it’s a well-made film with solid performances throughout, I doubt it will last long here. Sadly, it’s not a subject that would interest or appeal to most Hongkongers.

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