Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg and Josh Berger Director: Guy Ritchie Screenplay: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr, Emily Beecham, Jonny Lee Miller, Bobby Schofield, Jason Wong, Sean Sagar, Fariba Sheikhan, Damon Zofalghari, Reza Diako, Rhys Yates, Fahim Fazii, Sina Parvaneh, Cyrus Khodaveisi, Christian Ochoa Laverniua and Swen Temmel Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Like everything nowadays, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has become a political football, its haste and lack of coordination widely criticized. Though it might not be his intention, Guy Ritchie’s film, while set some three years earlier, is bound to add to the debate about the failure to ensure the extrication of all the Afghan nationals who had aided allied forces during the long conflict, including those who had acted as interpreters for the military. A caption preceding the final credits notes that thousands of the interpreters and their families were left to the mercy of the Taliban despite pledges that they would be evacuated to safety before the country was surrendered, and “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (with the director’s name attached to differentiate it from other pictures with the unadorned title) will certainly be embraced by many viewers as confirmation that their abandonment represents a continuing stain on American honor.
But despite the use to which it can be put (and the title), the film is basically a personal story rather than a political polemic—a “double rescue” story that Ritchie has handled in a solid, straightforward fashion, eschewing the cinematic tricks and juvenile tendencies he’s often favored in the past. It is, in fact, a rather old-fashioned tale of heroism and duty in war, and an effective one, though it doesn’t avoid some genre tropes in the process.
The film falls into two parts. The first focuses on the businesslike relationship that develops between Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), who leads a squadron looking for enemy bomb-making sites, and Ahmed (Dar Salim), his newly-appointed translator. Both are serious, unemotional types, dedicated to doing their jobs well, although Ahmed, well-versed in the area, piques Kinley’s suspicions when he takes initiatives on his own, though his intuition usually proves correct.
Wanting to be more aggressive in uncovering Taliban IED factories, Kinley presses his commander, Col. Vokes (Jonny Lee Miller), for permission to investigate sites not yet fully vetted, and one of them, in a distant mountainous area, proves the jackpot. But after dealing with those Taliban in a cave near and old mine, the squadron comes under assault from a nearby enemy contingent, and before reinforcements can arrive, all but Kinley and Ahmed are killed. They take off on foot and avoid being captured, eliminating some pursuers in the process.
But eventually Kinley is seriously wounded. Ahmed decides to transport him back to the base—a long, arduous trek he must undertake mostly on foot, dragging the unconscious American on a makeshift stretcher, dealing with checkpoints and Taliban pursuers, and putting his own life on the line. He succeeds, and Kinley is returned to the U.S., and ultimately to his wife Caroline (Emily Beecham), who’s kept their specialized vehicle shop buzzing during his absence, and their three young children.
But once he’s recovered from his injuries, John can think of little but Ahmed, who’s had to go underground with his wife and infant son after becoming one of the Taliban’s most wanted. Infuriated at the red tape and delays in locating him, providing the visas they family must have and spiriting them out of Afghanistan, he decides, with his wife’s blessing, to go there himself, enlisting Vokes to get the visas and Eddie Parker (Antony Starr), a skilled American contractor with plenty of staff and equipment who’s been recommended by his buddy Sgt. Declan Brady (Alexander Ludwig), to provide the logistical support he’ll need. Despite some hiccups, Kinley locates Ahmed and his family and, with an Afghan diver at the wheel of a truck, gets them to a dam that will serve as the pickup point for Parker. But they’re pursued by a convoy of gun-wielding Taliban. Will Parker’s airship make it in time to save them when they’re pinned down and running out of ammunition?
The script by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davie is not a dramatization of a true story, and there are moments that might give one pause—the vehicular chases along mountain roads and the way great hordes of faceless Taliban are mowed down while, apart from the initial ambush, few Americans fall have the scent of old Hollywood Westerns, and the use of slow-motion at the most desperate point in the final stand-off, interrupted by a sudden intervention, is a case in which Ritchie resorts to a musty cliche. Nor is the banter among the Americans particularly enlightened.
But such stumbles are relatively rare, given Ritchie’s usual proclivities; for the most part the film treats the audience as adults, even as it exalts the American military (if not the American government—and remember, the narrative is set during the Trump years). The physical production certainly has an authentic look: though the picture was shot in Spain, Martyn John’s production design is convincing, and Ed Wild’s bleakly realistic cinematography uses the locations to excellent effect. James Herbert edits skillfully in both the action sequences and the more intimate ones, while Christopher Benstead’s score avoids bombast.
Eve more importantly, both Gyllenhaal and Salim invest Kinley and Ahmed with real humanity; they might be fictional characters, but they don’t come across as war-movie clichés. This is basically a two-hander, but all the supporting cast handle their roles with similar restraint, though the Taliban heavies are hardly nuanced.
“The Covenant” is hardly a revisionist film, either in terms of war movies in general or those about Afghanistan in particular; but as a tale of unlikely wartime comradeship, it’s a strong, compelling piece.