LONDON: The heartbreaking scenes at Kabul airport during the US’s 2021 military withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated news stations around the world. So, it’s no great surprise that acclaimed documentary maker Matthew Heineman chooses to open and close his new film, “Retrograde” with footage of those chaotic weeks. But it soon becomes clear that, much as with his previous projects (which include 2015’s “City of Ghosts” and 2021’s “The First Wave”), Heineman’s gift for cutting to the heart of a subject imbues this shockingly excellent film with more than just sensational footage.
“Retrograde” follows the last nine months of the US’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan. Heineman follows a team of Green Berets deployed to train local forces, as well as Afghan General Sami Sadat, whose frightened and beleaguered forces struggle to hold back the Taliban. As the announcement trickles down that the American presence will come to an end, Heineman captures every frightened stare and worried frown as the country’s soldiers realize they will very soon be on their own. He also captures the reality as American special forces reluctantly go about withdrawing their support.
As the best filmmakers do, Heineman does everything he can to remain neutral, but there is no hiding the feelings of those he chooses to capture — from the infuriated Green Berets, to the terrified staff working with Sadat and the anguished crowds in Kabul desperately trying to get aboard the last few flights out.
“Retrograde” is shot as beautifully as the best Hollywood movie, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch — there are no actors here, just very real people facing the very real prospect of Taliban rule. Heineman’s access (to the war rooms, to the phone calls, to the scenes of civilians running across air fields, to the Taliban gunfire mere meters from where Sadat and his forces are located) is astonishing and the film he has made is simply breathtaking.