The rise and fall of ISIS took place over a roughly five-year period, without getting much attention from Hollywood. Yes, there were some documentaries, but there wasn't ever a major war movie about that particular conflict. Mosul, arriving on Netflix November 26, is the first.
The film has an American director (Matthew Michael Carnahan, best known as the writer of geopolitical thrillers like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, as well as World War Z), and was executive-produced by the Russo brothers, who directed the last two Avengers movies. The film, shot in Morocco, was adapted from a 2017 New Yorker article by journalist Luke Mogelson.
But one thing that's notable about Mosul is that it doesn't center the Americans. In fact, it's about a group of Iraqi soldiers and snipers, trained to take down ISIS (called in the film by the Arabic acronym Daesh), and there are no American characters at all—the film employs an entirely Arab cast and is mostly in Arabic.
The action is set on a single day, near the end of the campaign, at a time when Daesh is no longer in control of the city but remains not quite completely defeated.
Overall, Mosul is a harrowing war film, directed with urgency, in a way that's always clearly rendered, and not dependent on shaky-cam techniques. There are also some moments of genuine heartbreak, especially a scene involving a pair of brothers.
No, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any particular way, or go particularly far afield from the usual conventions of war movies. But Mosul is, overall, a winning effort.
Mosul, which played at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals a year ago and was acquired for distribution by Netflix afterwards, covers the campaign in 2016 and 2017 in which the Iraqi army, specifically a group called the Nineveh Swat Team, fought to recapture the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the ISIS forces.
The dynamics of the team, of men from very different walks of life coming together to fight, are familiar from war movies of the past. But in Mosul, they take on an unusual air, including a lot of discussion of the political dynamics that brought them all to this point.
“An Iranian Special Forces Colonel, in Iraq, using an American rifle, firing NATO ammo?,” a sniper says at one point in Mosul. “Crazy world. Someone should sell tickets.” In another scene, a colonel tells one of the soldiers that Iraq isn't a real country, anyway, and hasn't been since Babylon.
“You were created by a drunk British dilettante and a French bureaucrat with inaccurate maps,” he says. Iraq's borders, like many of the countries of the Middle East, were drawn arbitrarily following the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
Of the cast, the standout, as the leader of the unit is the Iraqi-American actor Suhail Dabbach, who previously played a pivotal part in the Oscar-winning Iraq War film The Hurt Locker. Also outstanding is the Tunisian actor Bilal Adam Bessa, as a Kurdish policeman who's the “new guy” on the team.
It's not going to go down as a classic of the genre, but Mosul is a capable, well-produced film that tells a war story that hasn't been told on screen before, and certainly deserves to be. On Netflix, it joins another 2020 war movie, The Outpost, which told the story of a crucial campaign in Afghanistan.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.