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‘Retrograde’: A sad chronicle of the war in Afghanistan’s last months

Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman turns his attention to a subject he’s very familiar with: Another lost cause

A scene from "Retrograde," which documents the final months of the war in Afghanistan. (Matthew Heineman/OTP/National Geographic)
4 min
(3 stars)

In such documentaries as “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts,” the filmmaker Matthew Heineman has put himself in harm’s way to chronicle the front line of the war on drugs and the work of Syrian citizen journalists attempting to document the predations of the Islamic State. With his latest film, “Retrograde” — which bears witness to the final months of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan, also known as America’s longest war and sometimes, more poetically, the Forever War — he returns to administer a dose of the same bitter medicine. It is an impressive and yet enormously depressing achievement, if that’s the right word.

Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’ and his affinity for picking (seemingly) futile battles

“Retrograde” opens with scenes of chaos at Kabul Airport in August 2021, as American forces try to evacuate as many Afghan HVIs (high-value individuals such as interpreters, informants and military partners in the Afghan National Army) as they can from among the thousands clamoring to escape from the fallen city. It then jumps backward in time eight months to January, as we watch American advisers trying to train Afghan recruits for the coming operations against the Taliban that they will have to carry out once the U.S. pulls out, as it has been made clear they will.

It can be frustrating — even infuriating — to watch trainees who obviously aren’t ready, and more so when the trainers ultimately do pull out, destroying massive amounts of ammunition and equipment in the process, rather than risk it falling into enemy hands. That’s the military definition of the word retrograde: Department of Defense speak for the burning of maps, the smashing of computers with a sledgehammer and the blowing up of countless bullets. But the film’s title has a double meaning, alluding to the loss of progress and ground that inevitably follows our pullout.

In Sami Sadat, a three-star general in the Afghan army, Heineman finds the perfect subject on whom to hang the emotions of this otherwise maddeningly clinical saga of attrition. After the training sequences and the 10-day retrograde operation that leaves Sadat and his forces to their own devices, Heineman shifts focus, zeroing in on Sadat, a baby-faced officer in his mid-30s who, it quickly becomes clear, is in way over his head.

Two weeks of chaos: A timeline of the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan.

From there on out, as the film winds its way back to August and the fall of Kabul, the documentary charts Sadat’s frustrations: with mounting casualties, with troops abandoning their posts, with the report of an officer getting stoned on hashish and then failing to lift a finger while under attack — and with the Kafkaesque decisions of his own higher-ups. Those bureaucrats approve his requests for weapons and supplies in the morning, as he puts it, only to cancel them by the end of the day. “I can’t fight the Taliban and the administration at the same time,” he laments, with barely concealed despair.

“Retrograde” is a handsome film, ironically, conveying a sense of the country that is at stake, and its people. And Heineman is smart to frame the story around a single individual, as he did in his fact-based drama about war correspondent Marie Colvin, “A Private War.” At times, however, it’s almost too slick and good-looking, with some scenes that resemble a first-person-shooter video game, shot — remarkably — from inside the cockpit of a helicopter firing missiles, or in a command post where officers give the order to light someone up while coolly watching grainy drone surveillance footage.

At other times, as when Sadat shows Heineman’s camera cellphone pictures of human body parts after a vehicle-borne IED accidentally self-detonated, the film serves as a potent reminder: War is never a game.

R. At the Angelika Pop-Up. Contains images of war injuries, some coarse language, smoking and mature thematic material. 96 minutes. On Nov. 12, the theater will host a Q&A with director Matthew Heineman and executive producer Baktash Ahadi following the 7:20 p.m. show.