Retrograde Movie Review


National Geographic Documentary Films

Reviewed for FilmFactual by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Matthew Heineman

Writer: Matthew Heineman

Screened at: Online screening, LA, 11/17/22

Opens: November 11th, 2022

The war in Afghanistan is a concept that’s simply become an established reality today. Those who can remember September 11th, 2001 will surely recall the pretense of “weapons of mass destruction” that led to a Western invasion of Iraq before the true focus once again became finding Osama Bin Laden, the architect of the deadly attacks carried out that day. Yet it’s easy to forget the human impact of forces remaining in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, and particularly the cost of finally removing them, which unsurprisingly was not without severe and irreversible consequences.

Matthew Heineman is an extraordinarily skilled documentarian who has many times before looked at the costs of war and the human factor that rarely reaches countries far away from the violence. Known for examining border interactions and the medical response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Heineman knows how to showcase the U.S. Special Forces members who represent the last line of defense in Afghanistan and who are just as startled by the announcement of their impending return home as those who learn about it from the comfort of their own homes half a world away.

The structure of Retrograde befits its content. Rather than feature interviews with soldiers reflecting back on their time spent in Afghanistan, it lives in the moment, dealing with the facts on the ground that make it so that an easy exit is not possible. General Sami Sadat, an Afghan commander who has worked closely with American forces over the years, knows that he will be required to stay and take on the fight that his longtime colleagues are abandoning, and seeing how he and the departing soldiers process that reality is haunting and intense.

The notion of the United States as a world superpower whose very involvement keeps others in line is put into focus in this film, since the Afghans who have no choice but to remain behind understand that the departure of American forces may lead to a renewal of hostilities. The photographs and reports from the airport in Kabul in 2021 depicted just how harrowing and unimaginable the situation was, as people herded onto planes hoping to be able to evacuate before things got much worse. This film digs deeper into that and immortalizes it for audiences who won’t have the vivid memory of seeing it unfold in real time.

Most films about war have a clear perspective on the rightness or wrongness of a particular conflict and seek to articulate that, like one of this year’s frontrunners for the Best International Feature Oscar, Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front. But Retrograde doesn’t judge since what matters is the facts as they stand: American and Western forces have been present for so long that they have invariably shaped the landscape of the region, and anything they do now will create a ripple effect. Keeping them in place indefinitely may not have been a viable solution, but pulling them out in one sudden and final move evidently brings with it its own implications. 

Retrograde seeks to accomplish something unachievable and comes as close as possible: to offer a window into the mindset of those who have been to war and experienced its inescapable reality for those who have never and will never be able to understand. Heineman’s hand or presence isn’t felt because he allows these people to tell their own story and to work through what they must without the option of ignoring it or dismissing it in favor of something more pleasant. In that way, it has much to say about war and international engagement in general, zoned in on a specific instance that will unfortunately have far too many comparable moments throughout past and future history.

94 minutes

Story – B+

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

Matthew Heineman/OTP

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