An examination of the most thought-provoking films about the Afghan War as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from its longest war.
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While prominent films depicting the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Rambo, etc.) didn’t take off until 10 years after the fall of Saigon (April 1975), Afghanistan-based films were released far earlier.
There were just a few films that made a big splash at the box office since the subject matter was still too raw for audiences to consider it proper movie fare.
Films depicting Afghanistan’s wars previous to the current insurgency are intriguing to look at.
When John Huston adapted Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King in 1975, it was set in a land that had been repeatedly invaded by the British Empire.
Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser, directed by Richard Lester, was released in the same year. It begins with Harry Flashman’s heroic stand at Piper’s Fort during the catastrophic First Anglo-Afghan War (he was actually attempting to surrender) (1839-42).
1. The Outpost (2020) Amazon Prime
The Outpost, based on the best-selling book by CNN’s Washington anchor Jake Tapper, tells the true account of the Battle of Kamdesh in Nuristan Province, which served as the location for The Man Who Would Be King and is said to be home to some of Alexander the Great’s soldiers’ ancestors.
At least eight US soldiers were killed during the Taliban’s siege of the stupidly located COP Keating station, making it one of the most costly single actions for the international forces during the fight.
In return, air support that arrived late in the day to save the beleaguered Americans resulted in the Taliban losing an estimated 150 militants.
That’s an idiotic way of putting it. When looking at a map of Afghanistan, the US military decided to build their base in a narrow pass surrounded by extremely high hills, which would allow the Taliban to fire mortars and snipers at the garrison at any time of day.
As a high-octane action film, The Last Castle (directed by Rod Lurie) is a success. However, I found the nighttime scenes a little too hazy for my taste.
It can be a little tough to tell who’s who in the cast due to the standard buzz cuts and uniforms, but that’s just a minor nitpick.
While Orlando Bloom appears in a brief role as a camp commander killed by the rebels in the early moments of the film, Scott Eastwood, Milo Gibson, and Caleb Landry Jones all give great performances.
With Black Hawk Down’s similarity to The Outpost, there may have been a sense of déjà vu for Bloom while working on the film (2001).
2. Red Snow (2019)
There’s an intriguing notion behind this small-scale Canadian drama series.
While being held captive by the Taliban, First Nations (Gwich’in) Canadian soldier Dylan Nadazeau (Asivak Koostachin) proves to be much more than they bargained for.
In Marie Clements’ meandering, impressionistic daydream, eerie Gwich’in incantations and throat singing terrify his captors.
Take a look at Hyena Road (2015), a mainstream Canadian film about the conflict starring Paul Gross (Constable Benton Fraser from Due South).
3. 12 Strong (2018) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
‘Horse Soldier’ Westerns such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Major Dundee (1952) have been compared to The Outpost, although 12 Strong is more reminiscent of a ‘under siege’ picture like Zulu (1964), Go Tell the Spartans (1978) or We Were Soldiers (2002). (1965).
With Mjölnir out of the way, Chris Hemsworth stars as a Green Beret commander dispatched into Afghanistan to help the Northern Alliance (the military front, not the football league/building society) leader Abdul Rashid Dostum in his fight against the Taliban after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the face of the tough terrain, US military intelligence appears to have overlooked the fact that horses are necessary.
When it comes to his only film to date, Nicolai Fuglsig’s rat-tat-tat of gunfire gets a little tedious over the course of its long running time (129 minutes).
4. War Dogs (2016) – Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy
I’m a little underwhelmed by Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) attempt at a satire of the armaments dealer genre, which includes Lord of War, Air America, and Charlie Wilson’s War.
Arms merchants Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz scammed their way into a $300 million US Army contract to supply ammunition for the Afghan National Army – which turned out to be shoddy ‘unserviceable’ Chinese cast-offs, riffing on the real-life story.
Miles Teller’s Packouz character is flat and uninteresting, but Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff from The Wolf of Wall Street is a spitting image of himself (2013).
Although the film received negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office, director Todd Phillips made a strong comeback with his next project, the DC Comics origin narrative Joker (2019).
5. Kajaki: The True Story/aka Kilo Two Bravo (2014) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
In contrast to many of the gung-ho shouting American films set during World War II, this low-budget British attempt works nicely within its admitted limits.
Kajaki Dam is based on the Kajaki Dam incident, where a troop of soldiers guarding an area near the Kajaki Dam (Helmand region) find themselves trapped by Soviet-era mines.
If you like Clint Eastwood’s minefield sequence in Kelly’s Heroes, Kajaki will take you to a new level of fear.
Similar to Kajaki, The Patrol follows a group of British soldiers on a fatal mission in an enemy country the year before.
6. Lone Survivor (2013) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
In Lone Survivor, Mark Wahlberg’s fifth collaboration with Peter Berg, he depicts the Navy SEALs’ Operation Red Wings, which failed to locate the leader of the Taliban, Ahmed Shah.
Lone Survivor, like any film that deals with a failed mission, has a tendency to make you wonder, “Why bother?”
A number of the Afghans in the film are seen to be willing to help the team, while others provide aid, but it is evident they are not exactly thrilled with the American presence in their nation.
7. Special Forces (2011) – Amazon Rent/Buy
This old-school rescue mission flick from French documentary producer/director Stéphane Rybojad stars Diane Kruger, Djimon Hounsou, Denis Ménochet and Tchéky ‘Baptiste’ Karyo.
It’s up to the French Special Forces to save Kabul-based journalist Elsa Casanova from a vicious Afghan warlord who kidnaps her and her friend Amen before their gory on-camera death.
8. Red Sands (2009) – full movie available free to watch on YouTube – or Amazon Rent/Buy
This shaky but entertaining horror film, set in Afghanistan’s Parvan region in September 2002, is a welcome change of pace.
An malevolent Djinn is angry by the thoughtless demolition of its shrine by one of the members of the U.S. Special Forces team.
Shane West (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is the only survivor in the investigation’s framing scenes, played by JK Simmons.
After playing Shades in Netflix’s Luke Cage, Theo Rossi is one of the first members of the team to succumb to a gruesome fate in Zach Synder’s Army of the Dead (2021).
9. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the United States provided clandestine support to the Afghan Mujahideen, resulting in the creation of the Taliban who later seized control from the warring factions of the Mujahideen.
Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay for the film, which stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Emily Blunt, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a result, the action and humor are right up your alley. For modern viewers, it provides a reminder of the U.S.’s engagement in Afghanistan before to George W. Bush’s invasion of the country.
10. Lions for Lambs (2007) – MGM, Amazon Rent/Buy
Robert Redford’s stagey polemic was poorly received when it was released, and its reputation has only worsened with time.
While Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep star in this talkfest against the Bush administration’s disastrous Afghan strategy, the poorly-paced talkfest bludgeons the viewer with its finger-wagging stance.
But the occasional mountaintop action sequences between US Special Forces and the Taliban, including Peter Berg and Michael Pea, who also starred in 12 Strong, are well-done, with the latter two also appearing in Lone Survivor as well.