Paul Gross has done a good job in creating a film on the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar. (in my humble opinion). No, I have not been to Afghanistan; but I know enough about the mission that makes me believe Gross captured the essential elements enough to show Canadians what our soldiers were up against in Kandahar. It was a war where we were immersed in a strange culture, where your allies were sometimes your enemies, where we did not always understand the underlying motives, with a heavy responsibility to accomplish a very difficult task; and where “winning” could be hard to define.
You have to keep in mind that this is a dramatic film, not a documentary, so not all the pieces will line up with reality. But that’s the nature of film. However, the script is good – the plot moves ahead at a good pace with several threads that come together at the end. The main overall theme is the differing perceptions between intelligence officer Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) and sniper team leader Warrant Office Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland). For Sanders, it’s very simple: do your duty, kill the enemy, and get the job done. But Mitchell from his higher perch sees that the political effects of any action are more important than getting rid of the enemy in the gunsight. He tries to pass this message on to Sanders but this does not work out so well at a critical moment.
The tribal conflicts and Pashtun customs become the main dramatic tension in the background throughout as the plot develops. These become apparent at the outset as a Canadian sniper team is cornered by a Taliban force and they try to save themselves by bursting into a village compound for protection. The oldest Afghan in the resident family sees that the Canadians need help and accepts them as guests, despite the gunfire that is peppering the building. We are then introduced to the code of Pashtunwali as this dignified elder talks the Taliban into breaking off their attack and leaving the sniper team alive. Pashtunwali arises however in later incident without such a favourable ending: a farmer from one tribe cannot pay the levy on his property to the warlord owner (does he represent Ahmed Wali Karzai?); children are seized in recompense; this action violates the honour of the farmer’s extended family; and honour must be restored by violence. All reflect reality in Afghanistan.
Besides the script, the casting and photography are also strong. Poor casting often offsets other qualities in a film but, in this case, all the actors look and talk like what you would expect Canadian soldiers are like. Reality is emphasized by the use of realistic sets and equipment, certainly with cooperation from DND in Ottawa and PPCLI and others in Shilo. There are some fascinating shots of LAVs warming up in a FOB, and I really wonder how Gross accomplished one scene where his vehicle join a convoy of military supply trucks heading into Kandahar City. Some scenes were actually shot in Kandahar, but those were just establishing shots; while the more complex scenes with the actors were done in Jordan where the terrain was similar. Gross has to be given credit for managing to put all these pieces together, blending them seamlessly into a flowing story.
The most impressive contribution to reality however must come from one of the actors that Gross somehow managed to obtain. Niamatullah Arghandabi plays the role of a bearded, turbaned former mujahidin who earned a renowned reputation after fighting the Russians during their occupation of the country in the 1990s. The name of this character is unknown to the Canadians and, because he was always hard to corner, he has come to be known simply as “The Ghost.” In the plot, rumours reach Mitchell that the Ghost has returned to Kandahar from Pakistan and Pete seeks to find out why this fabled Afghan fighter has returned. Arghandabi plays this role perfectly, giving a calm, confident manner no matter what crisis is erupting around him, a picture of what one might imagine a proud, dignified Pashtun elder would be.
Sure the film can be criticized. But these are small details and the film overall is really a worthy effort in representing the main themes of what our soldiers experienced in Afghanistan.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history