Director Guy Ritchie is an accomplished film maker with more than a dozen features on his filmography, but this is the first one to put his name in the title. The usual reason is given for why that has occurred, another film project has a claim to the title and the studio is trying to avoid confusion. That has happened before, e.g. “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” and “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”. I am going to suggest a better reason, this is Ritchie’s best film and one that he should be most proud of. Like John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence in a large flourish, Ritchie signifies a personal statement with his name in the title.
I made his film “The Gentlemen” my favorite of the Covid limited movie year 2020. I have enjoyed and admired most of the English gangster film he has produced. I consider him a reliable director when it comes to comedic action and silly violence. I can now say that his skills in regard to action are not limited to the light adventure styles we have been accustomed to/ “The Covenant” is a serious war film with hard action sequences that are played realistically without the cinematic stylings that are so frequent in today’s films. Just a few weeks ago, he released a film “Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre“, that I thought was a bit of a let down from his previous output. My guess is, he was more focused on this project than the piece of action entertainment that came to us earlier this year. The reality of this picture makes the suspense work so much better than the artifice of those earlier pictures.
“The Covenant” is a fictional story about a non-fictional war, and it is focused on characters we know to exist in reality in some form or another. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal plays Army Sgt. John Kinley, a soldier tasked with locating Taliban Weapons in Afghanistan. His unit is assigned a new interpreter, Ahmed, played by Iraqi born actor Dar Salim. For the first act of the film, the men form a tentative professional relationship in which Ahmed repeatedly demonstrates his worth not only for his language skills but for his understanding of the culture and physical environment the conflict is located in. There are plenty of tense moments in this section, as the treats from the Taliban are everywhere, frequently buried in the everyday life of the people of Afghanistan, who seem to despair of both the U.S. presence and that of the radical Muslim movement. Ahmed sometimes takes the initiative, when he is really expected to defer to the Americans, but Sgt. Kinley recognizes, slowly, that his interpreter is a valuable part of their team.
A frighteningly realistic combat sequence makes the transition between the first and second acts, and it is tough to imagine because it does not go well for the American unit, several of whom we have met and listened to in conversations that are fraternal in nature with one another. Kinley and Ahmed find themselves fleeing from a vast force of Taliban fighters, while they are more than 70 miles from the base of operations. This act is where Gyllenhaal and Salim earn their acting stripes, as the two men fight their way through the mountainous terrain, trying to avoid capture that would surely lead to torture and death. I have no military training myself, but I was convinced that the two actors were operating very much in the manner that real soldiers would. They are cautious when necessary and forceful when required to be. The overwhelming odds make it inevitable that something bad is going to trip them up at some point. When the inevitable happens, they still manage to forge on, and the heroic cleverness of Ahmed, plus his familiarity with the people and terrain, allow them to dance around capture on their journey. Salim takes the lead role for much of this portion of the film, and although he is a savior figure, his character never comes across as a condescending stereotype.
It is the third act of the film that should shame the U.S. and it carries the real weight of the movie. The people of Afghanistan have suffered under the Taliban, but imagine what it must be like for those people who cooperated with U.S. forces. They live under a shroud of doom, and Ahmed is simply a symbol of the larger issue of U.S. obligation to it’s partners in this enterprise. Bureaucracy, indifference, and logistics probably have accounted for hundreds of deaths since the U.S. left the arena. This story may be fictional, but the scenarios are real, and they are haunting. Ritchie’s film strips off the veil and shows us how damaging our failures to these allies is. Without taking a political position, the film still makes a valid point about our moral shortcomings in this conflict. The third act concludes with a suspense filled action sequence, which is thrilling, but the epilogue to the story should depress anyone with a sense of right and wrong.
Personally, I was moved by the story and outraged by the reality. The film is suspenseful from beginning to end. The tension that I felt in my stomach during the whole story, never seemed to let up, and that sort of engagement is what I treasure in a film. So when you take the two lead performances, and put them together with the realistically staged action sequences, and then layer a dollop of moral outrage on top of it, I think you get one of the best films of the year. If I were not opposed to totalitarianism, I’d say it should be required viewing for everyone who cares about what this country does in the rest of the world. I don’t know that there is a solution to the issues in Afghanistan that will satisfy all the relevant parties, but I do know that what we have done in getting out of that part of the world, did not work in a way that anyone should be proud of.