Just over four years ago, as Facebook recently reminded me in that unsettling way it has, I tagged along with an Iraqi Army general and a large convoy of his armoured vehicles as they took us to see the first street in Mosul to be liberated from ISIS rule. The impromptu press tour, right on the edge of the city, didn’t work out quite as planned: ISIS counterattacked, trapping us all in the street, to the general’s surprise and then despair.
Iraqi tanks closed off the street at both ends, firing at the car bombs heading towards us, while mortar teams blasted away in all directions at the snipers harassing us from the neighbouring streets and houses; the general, and his staff, huddled in a commandeered house, with their heads in their hands, arguing with each other about how or whether we could escape. It wasn’t a great experience, but it was a vivid early glimpse of how the gruelling, months-long battle for the ancient city would pan out.
Now Netflix have adapted the excellent 2017 New Yorker story by the journalist Luke Mogelson, who embedded with an elite Iraqi SWAT team as they fought their way into the city, and the result is an unexpected masterpiece. Working with the legendary Iraqi Kurdish journalist Sangar Khaleel to advise on authenticity, the result is a classic war movie, among the first and surely the best of the films that will fall out of the wider Arab Spring wars.
Filmed entirely in Arabic using local actors, Mosul feels real in a way war films generally don’t: it opens with haunting drone footage of Mosul’s devastated Old City, and at times, the camerawork slips into the artlessly-framed, shifting-focus look of documentary combat footage, marking itself out from the general run of Hollywood action movies.
The uniforms, weapons, and vehicles are all unusually correct. The street scenes, filmed in Marrakech, look like an Arab city in the middle of urban fighting in a way films never manage to authentically capture: not just the rubble and destruction, but the rubbish strewn everywhere, the clothes and food discarded in the midst of the fighting. You can smell the rot and shit and death as the tight-knit squad picks its way into the heart of the ISIS-held Old City.
Following a young Kurdish police recruit, Kawa, as he is adopted by a SWAT team on what transpires to be an off-the-books mission into the heart of the ISIS caliphate, Mosul quickly establishes the close bond between the men before killing them off one by one. Death, when it comes, isn’t heroic: lead characters as well as innocent civilians die in sudden, brutal, meaningless ways, alive one second and gone the next. Over the course of two hours, the green recruit Kawa is hardened by the fighting, brutalised into a skull-masked, pitiless avenger: to defeat ISIS, he becomes Death, more or less.
The performances are uniformly exceptional; the script, which doesn’t flinch from addressing Iraq’s decades of trauma, ranges from the laddish banter between the close-knit squad to all the shades of loss, fear, anger and betrayal Iraqis have had to endure in recent years. Corruption and betrayal are ever-present; so is the dogged determination of the SWAT team, who become, especially in a powerful scene facing off against a campy feline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, symbolic stand-ins for the long-suffering Iraqi nation itself.
Mosul hits all the notes necessary for a classic war movie, while adding something far rarer and more powerful: not just its authenticity but the dignity and humanity it grants to ordinary men risking everything for love of a country of which too many of us know or care nothing. With Mosul Netflix have unexpectedly created a masterpiece worthy of the Iraqi people who suffered so much to defeat ISIS.