Matthew Heineman’s documentary "Retrograde": A chilling, intimate view of the Afghanistan War's end

This unique new film focuses on the failures, human costs and consequences of the abrupt end to the longest US war

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer
Published November 11, 2022 8:00AM (EST)
Updated December 9, 2022 3:07PM (EST)
Retrograde (Matthew Heineman/OTP/National Geographics)
Retrograde (Matthew Heineman/OTP/National Geographics)

On the first episode of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" on Apple TV+, he covered the horrifying realities of the U.S. military's use of burn pits. Burn pits are enormous craters that get filled with all kinds of garbage and debris, then set on fire, leaving a trail of toxic waste and often exposing military personnel to carcinogen-laden smoke. For Stewart, the problem with burn pits is that they show a deep disregard not only for the territory in which the U.S. military is operating but also for our troops.

Imagine, though, what happens when the burn pit isn't just filled with garbage; it is also filled with care packages, printers and maps as part of a military retrograde operation. Imagine what happens when the military is destroying valuable materials it doesn't want landing in the hands of its enemy because it doesn't trust its allies enough to protect them.  Imagine burning all of those things, because you have been ordered to, even when you think it's a really bad idea.

This is the context of Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning Mathew Heineman's new film, "Retrograde," which captures the final nine months of the U.S. war in Afghanistan when President Biden announced that all U.S. troops would quickly retreat from Afghanistan. Covering the story from the perspective of a team of Green Berets supporting the Afghan National Army, a young Afghan general fighting desperately to defend his country, Afghan interpreters working with the U.S. military and civilians terrified of a return to Taliban rule, the film offers an intimate, chilling portrait of the colossal failures, human costs and destructive consequences of the abrupt end to America's longest war.

The film isn't questioning whether the war should have ended. Instead, it focuses on how it ended; it is the hasty retreat of the military, the retrograde operation, that offers the film's central tension. Heineman's original plan was to offer viewers a close-up view of the operation of a Green Beret unit after almost two decades of war. Arriving in Afghanistan in 2020 around the time Joe Biden was elected, he and his crew soon learned all U.S. troops were to leave Afghanistan. What had been planned as a film about an ongoing operation now had to pivot to a film about the end of the longest war for both the United States and Afghanistan.

The Army describes retrograde as "a defensive task that involves organized movement away from the enemy." The catch, though, in this film is that as the U.S. military is engaging in organized movement away from an enemy, they are also attempting to leave their allies in the Afghan National Army prepared to defend themselves against the Taliban — and that sort of bifurcated strategy is impossible to carry out. As one of the Green Berets in the film explains to a younger soldier as he looks at computer equipment about to go up in flames, conducting a retrograde operation like this is like "s**tting in a trench."

An entirely different approach to the story of Afghanistan

At the center of the film is General Sami Sadat, the unlikely hero of a documentary that was originally about the Green Berets. As the Green Berets were organizing their retreat, Heineman and his team decided to follow their storytelling instincts and stay behind to cover Sadat, who was responsible for an army of around 15,000 Afghan fighters, as he faces the increasing encroachment of the Taliban while the U.S. sets all its equipment on fire and leaves.

If you are looking for a film that explains the background of the war, a historical critique of U.S. imperialism, or a deep dive into the complex realities of Afghan culture, this isn't it.

Unlike most coverage of the war, the focus of the film is not on the larger geopolitical dynamics, but rather on the people affected by them.

Heineman shoots most of the film in Helmand province, for example. Helmand, a stronghold for the Taliban, has notoriously been one of the most complex and volatile regions in Afghanistan, a region that has repeatedly vexed U.S. efforts. Yet viewers only learn when Sadat moves his troops to defend the city of Lashkargah that the city is considered strategically essential to resisting a Taliban takeover of the nation as a whole.

Lashkargah fell to the Taliban on August 13, 2021. Two days later Kabul fell as well. The film covers these strategic losses, but backs away from placing them in a larger context.

But if viewers are looking for a unique, intimate portrait of Afghan resilience, tenacity, camaraderie and resolve, this film is it. Unlike most coverage of the war, the focus of the film is not on the larger geopolitical dynamics, but rather on the people affected by them.

Without question, "Retrograde" is the one film that will chip away at the myriad Afghan stereotypes that have flooded the U.S. imagination since the attacks of September 11, 2011. It refuses to portray Afghans as frightening terrorists, pathetic victims, corrupt leaders or hapless opioid addicts.

Documenting the tremendous losses of the war and the risk that any gains might soon be lost, one of the Green Berets bluntly states as he packs up, "This isn't a win." While the film doesn't offer a lot of finger-pointing, it does make clear that the war on Afghanistan was a colossal tragedy for the Afghan people. And even more important, the film exposes the hypocrisy and hubris of U.S. leadership. In a series of voiceovers opening the film, we hear George W. Bush deploy the name "Operation Enduring Freedom," Barack Obama speak about how Afghans will "see the light" and Joe Biden explain how doesn't want to "repeat mistakes."

This film also completely rewrites the traditional script about U.S. military support in Afghanistan. While some might rightly find fault with the fact that it sidesteps the realities of U.S. disdain for Afghans, both systemically and individually, the film offers a rare view of a collaboration between the U.S. military and the Afghans that is built on mutual respect.

The film documents, for example, the deep fondness between Sadat, his leadership team and the Green Berets. The bonds here are not those of master and apprentice or victim and savior, though it is clear that Sadat values their guidance and leadership. Instead, the film goes to great lengths to show there were real alliances built between the U.S forces and the Afghans. The depth of these ties is underscored as the film ends and we learn that current and retired Green Berets are working along with Sadat to get Afghans they once worked with safely out of the country since the U.S. government isn't adequately coming to the rescue.

Heineman redefines the power of the documentary close-up

He has an uncanny ability to capture his subjects at precisely the moment we think they will break.

Heineman has become famous for a cinéma vérité approach that avoids both interviews and voiceovers, but this film takes that signature style to an entirely new level of art. Framing shots with extreme close-ups of his subjects in profile, Heineman manages to let the characters simply speak for themselves: frustrated, exhausted, worried yet resolved. He has an uncanny ability to capture his subjects at precisely the moment we think they will break, at exactly their tipping point, and film their quiet decision to keep on.

The fact that we see these same moments among the Afghans fighting to defend their country from a Taliban takeover and the Green Berets, who knew that their abrupt leaving would end badly, shows the complex ways these communities became intertwined.  

In the final scenes, Heineman captures the devastating images of Afghans at the Kabul airport desperately trying to flee a country that fell almost immediately to the Taliban. Heineman's interest, though, isn't to interrogate whether the failure was the fault of the Afghan army or the Ghani government or the U.S. military. One of the last scenes shows a meeting among the Taliban senior officials and signals there is far more to the story of what drives Afghan history and identity than this film intends to cover.

At its heart, the film asks whether the grand narratives of history really ever tell the story, since the moving story of General Sadat and the relationship he built with his Green Beret allies doesn't fit any predictable mold. Following a similar theme to many of Heineman's films, "Retrograde" shows that if you look really closely at the people embroiled in a conflict, they won't conform to stereotypes or stark notions of good or evil, winner or loser, hero or villain. If the traditional headlines, narratives, and sound bites that have been used to understand the conflict in Afghanistan miss the point, then the film suggests that maybe they are what is truly retrograde. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated the date Lashkargah fell to the Taliban. The story has been corrected. 

"Retrograde" opens in select theaters November 11, 2022, and will stream on National Geographic Channel Dec. 8, on Disney+ Dec. 9, and Hulu Dec. 11.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Afghanistan War Documentary Film Matthew Heineman Retrograde Review