If “documentary-style” has become shorthand for a certain kind of blandly flat aesthetic that viewers have learned to code as “reality,” you can’t blame Matthew Heineman.
In only a decade of directing docs, Heineman has set a template for astonishingly well-shot films marked by impeccably intimate access and the sort of eye for compositional detail you’d expect from a feature film with the budget and time for elaborate set-ups. and uncannily placed lighting, not a seat-of-your-pants shoot in some of the most precarious situations imaginable. Put more simply, from Cartel Land to City of Ghosts to his TV work on The TradeHeineman makes films that are both pretty and pretty unnerving.
The Bottom Line
A beautifully photographed, generally apolitical glimpse of a tragedy.
A more negative interpretation would be that I’m frequently so impressed with the look of Heineman’s films — and his ability to somehow have cameras in places cameras most certainly don’t belong — that it’s only later that I wonder if he’s too willing to let those attributes stand in for a clearer intellectual approach. Part of why The Trade is, for my money, the best thing Heineman has done is that the added time afforded by TV let him deliver the impressionistic visuals along with real human depth.
Heineman’s new feature, Retrograde, produced by National Geographic, is a jaw-dropping look at the final nine months of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. By design, it’s resolutely apolitical, consistently disheartening and full of images and captured moments that far outlast the film’s 94-minute duration. There’s so much potency in Heineman’s snapshot of sadness, disappointment and resignation, that I frequently and ultimately found myself wishing it could be the full tapestry that a six-part miniseries might have allowed.
The film, which Heineman shot with Tim Grucza and Olivier Sarbil, begins at the Kabul Airport in August 2021, with a sea of desperate civilians, woefully unprepared soldiers and general chaos that will be superficially familiar from news coverage — though I’d never seen the nightmare unfolding seemingly from within in this fashion. Then Retrograde goes back to January 2021, where a small team of a dozen green berets is stationed in Helmand Province attempting to train 15,000 Afghan troops led by Sami Sadat, a young general.
It’s a posting mired in uncertainty, holding ground that everybody knows could be immediately ceded in the event of a full American withdrawal, which everybody knows is possible but nobody expects to come immediately. That’s what happens when four different presidents have engaged in a game of hot potato with the lives of very real people. Then President Biden announces that a complete exit is coming. The subsequent unraveling of a tenuous position isn’t placed at the feet of any one president or any one political party. It’s an hour of disappointed (and even angry) glances, increasingly resigned postures and the creeping recognition that a situation which was never going to end well… doesn’t.
This allows for everything that follows to be well-photographed — documentary filmmakers and the US military’s shared love of drones is used to consistently stunning effect — confirmation of things you already think, albeit presented with so much intimacy that empathy is unavoidable. Maybe the American soldiers are just too exhausted to have their guards up, or maybe some of them intend their lack of poker face to be a statement they’d rather not put into words.
The camera is present for events that you assume happened but never thought you’d see, from the smashing of computer equipment to the exploding of deep trenches of ammunition that couldn’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Accompanied by the tight close-ups on the visages of soldiers following orders that don’t align with what their consciences are telling them — a glum sit-down with native fixers and translators is the most depressing scene in a documentary full of them — it all creates the feeling that you’re a witness to something that should have been clandestine.
The Americans leave, but the filmmakers remain, which feels like more trenchant commentary than anything else in the documentary. We get to see how General Sadat performs without the American buttressing, well-meaning but unable to lead men whose support visibly wanes almost from shot to shot. Sadat is one of the few people in the film who gets to speak directly to the camera, or at least provide voiceovers to bridge scenes. I don’t know that that gives us any real insight into him as a person or a military leader, and the documentary still has what feels like leftover traces of a longer project either more balanced between the green berets and Afghans or completely focused on the Americans. I don’t think the latter version of Retrograde would have been better, but the former? Perhaps.
The in media res opening at the Kabul airport imposes a sense of inevitability on the documentary. Even if it didn’t, though, the inevitability is written on every face. I always get a little distracted by the questions of how and why his subjects let Heineman get so close, why they expose so much, and there’s a lot of that to be distracted by in Retrograde — but at least as much, or more, to be haunted by. It’s a beautiful glimpse into — if not in-depth enough to be a true examination of — a tragedy.
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