You know how it goes: you wait years for a movie that reframes the war in Afghanistan as a Saving Private Ryan-style rescue story, and two come along at once. Today, we look at a pair of ugly twins featuring white saviours rescuing Afghan interpreters to make us all feel better about the longest, most pointless war in American history. We examine the government support to both productions and how they seek not only to rebrand a failed war, but to suggest it can still be won.
You may remember from my episode looking at the cinema of the war in Afghanistan that at the end I mentioned how films were now emerging that sought to recontextualise the US withdrawal and set up the post-war narrative. We picked up on United States of Al, a terrible sitcom about an Afghan interpreter who moves to the US to live with the Marine he worked with. The opening episode of season two saw Al desperately trying to get his family out of the country as US forces rapidly redeployed to anywhere the fuck else. It aired just weeks after the real withdrawal.
That show was, at least to some extent, supported by the Marine Corps, but neither of the films we’re going to look at today had formal US government, let alone military, assistance. Nonetheless they have astoundingly similar storylines, and must be considered twin movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon from 1998, or A Bug’s Life and Antz, also from 1998.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant was originally called The Interpreter, but then they realised there’s already a film with that title, from 2005, supported by the CIA. So they renamed it The Covenant, but then they realised there’s already a film with that title, from 2006. And several others using the same title. So instead of coming up with a better title, they just stuck the director’s name in front of it. It came out in April and has so far grossed around $19 million on a $55 million budget.
Kandahar was originally called Burn Run, not to be confused with the other script called Burn Run which is also about a US contractor in Afghanistan. No, I’m not kidding. Even though there were already several films called Kandahar, and half the film takes place in Herat, and the part that takes place in Kandahar makes no sense being set there, and it wasn’t filmed in Kandahar, they called it Kandahar. It was released in May and has so far grossed around $6 million on a $70 million budget.
In The Covenant, Jake Gyllenhaal plays an Army Sergeant who undergoes an extensive cat and mouse pursuit with the Taliban, with only his Afghan interpreter for company. In Kandahar, Gerard Butler plays a CIA operative who undergoes an extensive cat and mouse pursuit with the Taliban, with only his Afghan interpreter for company.
I imagine you’re getting the picture – two films, with very similar plots, that came out within weeks of each other, neither one of which is going to make any money. The sort of films that aren’t made for purely commercial reasons. No audience metrics or market research suggests that people want more films about the war in Afghanistan – 12 Strong and particularly The Outpost didn’t do well at the box office. United States of Al was cancelled after its second season (having completed its mission). Going back a little earlier, War Machine did not appeal to critics, and cost Netflix around $60 million to make, so it cannot have made money for them.
The only counterexample is the final season of Homeland, which drew bigger audiences than the series had ever managed before and was hailed by critics. Despite being an insufferable sack of shite. We can probably assume that’s because it was the climax of a long-running series that drew a lot of attention, rather than because that final season was set at the end of the war in Afghanistan.
Having watched both The Covenant and Kandahar, it’s obvious to me that they’re competing for a fairly miniscule audience, and releasing them nuts to butts means neither had any chance of turning a profit. Whatever market is out there for these films will be split between them.
So who made them, and why? Is this about trying to make money, or about shaping people’s perceptions of a largely forgotten, but ongoing war? The answers may come as a bit of a surprise to you.
Government Support to Kandahar (2023)
I know I give Gerard Butler a hard time but he deserves it. He plays one character – the rough voiced, masculine lead. He can’t do anything else. Also, he makes awful films. Geostorm, Hunter-Killer and Greenland are manifestly bad movies – the latter two made with the help of the DOD. You might argue he’s only an actor, taking a payday, but he had a producer credit on most of his major productions – he chose these roles, he made creative decisions that led to these monstrosities, they are his fault.
Also, I dislike any actor who refuses to take roles where they aren’t the lead character, and don’t get to fuel their public persona. That’s especially the case with people like Vin Diesel and Gerry Butler, in that their public persona is a tough guy. That’s it, nothing more complex than being a 21st century John Wayne. If anything, their personas are significantly less complex than John Wayne’s, in that he openly admitted to being a white supremacist, was very right wing and fabricated stories about Stalin trying to assassinate him.
As such, watching this man’s extremely limited box of tricks play out in a different setting was exceptionally boring to me. I did not enjoy Kandahar at all, it is a weak, annoying piece of cinema.
As is often the case, the production history is more interesting than the product itself. In 2016, a former Army intelligence and Defense Intelligence Agency officer named Mitchell LaFortune sold a spec script titled Burn Run. It was based on his experiences in Afghanistan in 2013, during the Snowden leaks.
Four years later, Butler picked it up as star and producer, and signed on Ric Roman Waugh to direct – the same guy who directed Angel Has Fallen and Greenland. You do get these directors who attach themselves to a particular actor in the hope of riding their coat-tails to glory. They’re both due to work together on Night Has Fallen and Greenland: Migration, because fuck quality when you can make shit sequels to sub-mediocre originals. Most of Kandahar was filmed in December 2021 and January 2022, and when you watch it you’ll really see how they managed to turn it around so quickly. Despite an overly-convoluted plot, not much happens in Kandahar.
What makes things especially interesting for us is that the filming largely took place in Saudi Arabia – in the Al-Ula region and in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia are relative newcomers to the Hollywood propaganda industry, in that they are best known for heavily censoring Western films or not allowing them into the country at all, and for banning Pokemon because it disrespected the Prophet.
However, since MBS took over he’s adopted several major changes in national investment strategy and in Arabia’s domestic culture. You may have read about them throwing enormous sums of money at big name footballers – this is part of an overall $20 billion investment strategy to try to develop the Saudi league, and one day host a World Cup.
They’ve also invested into Hollywood studios, and began building significant numbers of movie theaters, as well as relaxing the rules on which films are allowed in, and what scenes have to be censored to uphold the modesty of the Kingdom. On top of that they’ve established a financial incentives scheme, both nationally and locally in Al-Ula, and a national film commission.
If we go to the Film Al-Ula website we find that they offer:
- Tailored production support and troubleshooting from development to delivery.
- Guidance on accessing exceptional financial incentives on production spend.
- Free scouting support and a wealth of locations across an area the size of Belgium.
- Government liaison on all production regulations, custom clearances, and filming permits.
- Assistance with script approvals.
- Introductions to a pipeline of companies, services, and local talent in Saudi Arabia and the region.
- Travel, accommodation, and visa support for talent and crew.
Note script approval and government liaison services, but also the financial incentives – Saudi Arabia offers a 40% rebate on production expenses, which is at the top end of film and TV rebates and tax credits. In Europe it’s only Malta that offers 40%, as far as I know, alongside a handful of other countries across the world. Thus, Kandahar is one of the first major Western films to shoot almost entirely in Saudi Arabia, and one of the first to receive this massive subsidy from the government in Riyadh.
The rest of the money appears to have come from two sources – MBC Studios, a Middle Eastern media group and the largest broadcaster in Saudi, and Capstone Global, who call themselves ‘a global, alternative investment management firm operating across a broad range of derivatives-based strategies with a deep understanding of volatility’. But clearly no understanding of screenwriting or the need to connect with an audience in order to have a hit movie.
Among the credits on Kandahar are the Ministry of Culture for Saudi Arabia, the Royal Commission of Al-Ula, Film Al-Ula, the Film Commission of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Quality of Life Program, part of their Vision 2030 effort designed to improve the lifestyle options available to Saudi citizens.
But why would a studio backed by the Saudi Royal Family, the Saudi government, the Al-Ula film office and an ‘alternative investment management firm’ with ‘a deep understanding of volatility’ want to piss money up the wall on a Gerard Butler vehicle where the only potential audience are anti-Arab simpletons?
Gerard Butler Nukes Iran
Kandahar has a complicated plot that belies how dumb the script is. I’m guessing they saw Syriana and wanted to make a more fast-paced version, and forgot that you actually need to take the time to set things up and explain them, otherwise it just becomes a blurry mess.
Our story begins with Gerry Butler playing a CIA operative on loan from MI6, working undercover at a Swiss tech firm. The firm is under contract to the Iranian government, so Gerry and his friend are out in the desert, supposedly upgrading the country’s internet service. He goes down a manhole, cuts open a cable, puts a little CIA doodad on it to hack the connection, then goes back up the ladder. For some reason a Quds Force team are hanging around, and they get into an argument, wanting to know what Gerry was doing. He says he was upgrading the connection, and shows them a live stream of a football match on his phone to try to prove it. In reality, the cable leads to a secret underground nuclear facility.
Let’s pause here and break down this opening sequence. Firstly, the Americans bombed the secret Iranian underground nuclear facility in Top Gun: Maverick only last year, so presumably they built a new one since then. Secondly, who goes to the trouble of building a secret underground nuclear facility, but runs the internet connection for the aforementioned secret underground nuclear facility through the country’s public cable network? Why is this cable so easily accessible to Gerry and the CIA? Wouldn’t you make it more difficult to get to than putting it under one manhole cover and down a 10 foot ladder? Especially next to a main road, thus making it entirely possible for Gerry to do this at night when the Quds Force aren’t around?
Also, why doesn’t Gerry do this at night when the Quds Force aren’t around?
And why are there so many secret underground nuclear facilities in Iran? It seems the number in film and TV must massively outweigh the number that exist in reality. Even if Iran has a secret underground nuclear program, which it probably doesn’t.
And if the secret underground nuclear facility is tapped into the country’s main internet cabling system, there’s no need for Gerry to go out there and physically tap into it. They could just hack in from the outside. Making him incompetent and reckless.
And why are the Quds Force so stupid as to be taken in by one suspicious Westerner waving his phone at them like they’re backwards monkeys who’ve never seen a football match before? Is it because this film was supported by the Saudi government, who hate Iranians and want the rest of the world to hate them too?
I won’t do this with every scene in the film, but I could. The script is insultingly dimwitted at every turn, and wears its agenda on its sleeve. To reiterate: this film wasn’t made to make money.
Back at CIA headquarters – though without any establishing shot of Langley or CIA logo anywhere – the Agency hack into the CCTV system of the secret underground nuclear facility. Why wouldn’t they do this more locally? Why run the operation from a room at headquarters? Wouldn’t they do this from a local CIA station in a nearby friendly country, such as Saudi Arabia?
Ah, of course.
They hack into the control mechanisms of the facility and deliberately overload the uranium enrichment chambers, causing a meltdown. For reasons that I’m sure will never be explained, this causes a massive explosion, a giant sinkhole that collapses down into the facility, and a mushroom cloud.
But somehow, very little radiation. We’re told that most of it is contained underground. Despite the mushroom cloud. Which doesn’t happen when reactors go into meltdown, because that’s a very different reaction to when a bomb goes off. This is what happens when you let an officer of an inferior agency like the DIA write your script. Never get screenwriting this bad in a CIA-supported movie.
Bizarrely, the CIA do this with their operative still in the country. They don’t wait for Gerry and his friend to get through Tehran airport and back home before they decide to nuke the Iranians. But it makes no difference – Gerry gets out fine. Even in the wake of a national disaster the like of which Iran has never seen before, they don’t lockdown the airports or do extra checks on departing Westerners, or even look for that suspicious British guy who was messing with the cables near the secret underground nuclear facility shortly before it exploded.
I guess Iranians really are that dumb. But also smart enough to build not one, but multiple secret underground nuclear facilities. But also dumb enough to hook them up to AOL.
Denial is futile – I really struggled to get through this film, even drinking Margaritas and eating tropical trail mix.
Gerard Butler Rescuing Afghans
I imagine this opening act of Kandahar makes it obvious why the Saudi government and an investment firm specialising in complex derivatives and volatility would spend money on this turd wrapped in digital celluloid.
Somehow though, the film gets worse. As Gerry is on his way home to see his ex-wife and go to his daughter’s graduation, he stops off in Dubai. Yes, the Dubai government also supported Kandahar, and the movie credits the Dubai Film Commission, the Dubai Police and Major General Abdullah Ali Al Ghaithi, Director of Dubai’s General Department of Protective Security & Emergency.
While in Dubai, Gerry meets up with his CIA handler, who gives him a fresh mission – go back into Iran, and dismantle the rest of their nuclear program.
However, Gerry is supposed to go in alone, with one Afghan interpreter, no backup, no team of Navy SEALs, no Special Activities Division unit, just him and Mo. I’m all for poisonous Reaganite images of the lone heroic white man who saves us all single handed, but do they have to pick the same lone heroic white man who was just in the country fiddling with the cables near the secret underground nuclear facility just before it blew up? Would you not pick someone else? Someone who the Quds Force weren’t, presumably, looking for?
I guess the Iranians really are that stupid, and so are the CIA.
Somehow, this two man team is going to get into Iran, disable the rest of the program, and then get back out and be home in time for Gerry’s daughter’s graduation in just a few days. It seems to me that there can’t be much of a program left if it takes one guy and an Afghan tagalong two days to wipe it out.
To reiterate: this script was approved by the Saudi government. I say that not just in reference to its politics, but also its quality.
Meanwhile, the Iranians pick up a Western journalist who is trying to expose the CIA’s role in the sabotage of the secret underground facility using leaked CIA documents. She doesn’t really know anything but they lock her up and tell her they’re going to execute her.
The interpreter, Mo, used to work for the US military and has been given a visa and lives in the US, but the CIA lie to him about what the mission entails. He accepts because he wants to go back to Afghanistan to look for his wife’s sister, and there’s a flashback to a conversation with the sister where she’s talking about being prevented from teaching in schools, and so on.
As Mo and Gerry are about to start their mission, a news story comes out based on the leaked CIA documents, which identifies Gerry as a covert operative. His cover blown, he and Mo have to get out of the country, but this means getting from Herat to Kandahar. En route, they are pursued by the Taliban, an ISI assassin named Nasir (the same name as the terrorist mastermind in Homeland), and the local branch of ISIS.
Mo, it turns out, is completely inept. He represents the good Afghan people, i.e. the ones who aren’t the Taliban, but he is reduced to simply a thing to be rescued. The one time Gerry tells him to do something – change a flat tire on the vehicle they’re using to escape – Mo can’t do it, and throws up.
The rest of the film is one long shooty chasey sequence, with a happy ending, but there are several points along the way that are worth noting.
First, Gerry promises Mo that he will help him find his wife’s sister, but that never actually happens. Afghan women are reduced to something to feel sorry for, and a reason to hate the Taliban, as per the CIA propaganda plan I’ve mentioned before. But they have no agency of their own, do nothing of any significance.
Second, there’s a conversation between the ISI assassin, Nasir, and a young Afghan boy. The boy proclaims how he knows how to use automatic weapons and build IEDs, and he protects the road from the infidels and unbelievers. But it turns out, he hasn’t ever read the Koran. Afghan children, as is so often the case, are reduced to the next generation of terrorists.
Third, the journalist disappears from the film completely for about an hour and a half, before eventually being released right at the end, dumped on the border between Iran and Pakistan. This is played as a happy ending, spliced into a montage where Gerry gets home and sees his daughter and Mo gets home and reunites with his wife.
But it isn’t a happy ending – she’s out in the middle of nowhere, no money, no water, no food, no phone. The message seems to be that leaking CIA documents is dangerous because it exposes people in the field – as per all the usual Agency talking points – but also because it’ll get you kidnapped by some evil Muslim government. Even though it’s never clear why they kidnap her, or why they release her.
Fourth, during the big climax where Mo and Gerry are trying to get into the base to get on the plane out of the country, they are surrounded by Taliban. The CIA chief back at headquarters calls in a massive drone strike. This is portrayed as him breaking the rules but saying they can fire him, he’s not going to see another of his guys die today. Bearing in mind basically no one on the American side dies in this film, I don’t really know why they included that line. The number of dead Muslims, either Iranian or Afghan, runs into the hundreds, but apparently that’s no reason not to drone bomb a hundred more.
What is not clear is whether the CIA had any input on all this. It seems unlikely that the producers wouldn’t have at least contacted them during script development, since the protagonist was changed from being DIA to CIA and, it seems, the whole Iranian nuclear angle was written in. Ultimately, the hero works for the CIA, rescues the metaphor for all good Afghans, and drone strikes help save the day. But in the absence of CIA branding or any Langley shot, I’m guessing there were parts of this script that meant they didn’t get fully involved.
What we’re left with is a story that portrays Afghans as weak and stupid, and something to merely be rescued rather than ask why they need to be rescued. Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghan children and the Taliban are all shown to be violent threats who are clearly to blame for this terrible situation, while the only Westerners are the good guys, killing all these people in order to restore peace and stability to the region.
I’ll say it again: this was not a film made to make money.
Government Support to Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
The Covenant is altogether a better film – better written, better acted (no surprise Jake Gyllenhaal is a better lead than Gerard Butler), but just as disappointing. The first half of the movie is very good, but the second half is essentially the same as Kandahar.
The film was not supported in the usual sense by the DOD, but it did get help from the Department of Defence Visual Information Distribution Service – DVIDS. At the end of the movie there’s a credit saying ‘The appearance of US Department of Defense visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement’.
I don’t have any documents on The Covenant but what I assume this means is that there was a script review, the film got rejected, but they provided some stock footage to the producers as a form of courtesy support. There are a couple of really clunky shots that have obviously been touched up with CGI, which feature a US Air Force Spectre gunship.
But there is also a lot of military hardware – trucks, C-130 aircraft, humvees and the like, so where did they get it from?
The answer is one of our proud NATO partners, Spain. The Spanish Air and Space Force, part of the Ministerio de Defensa de España, is credited on the movie, along with the local authorities in different parts of Spain, where the film was mostly shot. The Valenciana Conselleria de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (the local ministry of Education, Culture and Sport), an Air Force base in Zaragoza, a Captain in the Air Force and others are all thanked at the end of the film.
This hooks into another recent trend we’ve seen, alongside the growing Saudi involvement in Hollywood. In the last few months alone we’ve seen big budget productions supported by the militaries of Spain, Norway, Greece, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We’ve also seen a movie supported by the Russian military that’s set in the war in Yugoslavia become available on Amazon Prime, so it’s not entirely one-way traffic, but I can’t help but notice the activation of other NATO militaries in the entertainment business. I won’t speculate that this is a formal response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
So, we got Base Aerea de Zaragoza doubling for Bagram, with some obviously composited mountains in the background. That part of Spain is very, very flat. On the plus side, the base has a 3.7 out of 5 rating on google reviews, so if you’re ever in Zaragoza, it might be worth a visit. I do wonder, given the reputation of Bagram Air Base, whether the Spanish considered this implication when agreeing to the filming, not just for the sake of their google score.
It also appears that weapons and explosives used in the movie were provided by the Spanish police, because several local branches of the national police force are credited, more than you’d need to simply film scenes out in the countryside. The Spanish Film Commission’s website explains that this is a good source of both weapons and military equipment.
When it comes to the money, Spain in general offers a 30% rebate, but it goes up to 50% in the Canary Islands. So, if only we can come up with a story set entirely in Malta and the Canary Islands we could maximise on the rebates while getting to visit two of the best places in Europe. I’m thinking out loud.
Before we dig into The Covenant, I do want to mention another recent Guy Ritchie film that a listener put me onto – Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. It’s about a Hollywood actor playing a version of himself who gets drawn into a covert operation to infiltrate the mansion of a major criminal. So, the exact same plot as The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
But unlike that joyous classic, Operation Fortune is like drinking alcohol-free beer. It stars Jason Statham as the same guy he always plays, Hugh Grant as the same cockney criminal geezer that appears in almost every Guy Ritchie film, and Aubrey Plaza as a sultry American lady who does nothing except be a sultry American lady. I’m sure he was going for something like Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda, but due to his complete inability to write female characters he ended up with something that wastes Plaza’s considerable talents.
I mention this for two reasons – one: don’t watch it, and two: that means Guy Ritchie has released two movies this year, both based on other people’s movies. But whereas Operation Fortune is a lame, childish rip off of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, The Covenant is actually a better film than Kandahar.
The Politics of The Covenant
What I’ve found especially telling about this film is how it has been framed in the US – as a tale of a soldier who returns to Afghanistan to rescue his interpreter, when this is only the second act of a two-act story. The implication that the US either never should have left Afghanistan, or should go back and re-invade the country, rings loud in this second half, and in much of the media discussion of The Covenant. There’s a big focus on this being a film about doing the right thing, about keeping promises.
The Covenant opens with some on screen text about how many interpreters were hired by the US forces, often with the promise attached that they and their families would get US visas. Hundreds were killed in the war, and many were left behind during the US withdrawal. But instead of actually fixing that problem, they make movies about it to help remediate perceptions of the war and sew the seeds of a fresh invasion in the future. After all, those women who are unable to teach in schools and those interpreters we fucked over – we’ll surely make their lives better by invading. That’s what happened the first time, right?
It’s established that our story begins in March 2018 – during the Trump administration, and at a time the Pentagon were publicly criticising Trump for talking about ending the war and pulling out. Not that the film says this, but that’s their point.
Then we get a brief bit where we’re introduced to our protagonist – John Kinley, because they’re always called fucking John, and his small team of bozos with shitty nicknames. There’s a guy called Jizzy, which is the name of a pimp and stripclub owner in GTA San Andreas, and which does not make him sound like a tough soldier. There’s another guy called Jack Jack, because his full name is Jack Jackson or something. He gets blown up about 60 seconds into the film by a Taliban truck bomb.
This is astonishingly bad writing. ‘Jack Jack’ is a shit and annoying nickname, and they’ve given it to a guy who gets killed moments after we find out his name. So what does his name matter? Why give him a stupid name and even stupider nickname? Jake Gyllenhaal said in some of the making of featurettes that Guy Ritchie came in with a script of about 60 pages, some scenes written out, some in treatment form, and they made it up and ‘found the character together’ as they went along. That’s an awful approach to a $55 million movie, and I’m amazed this incompetent prick (Ritchie, not Gyllenhaal) keeps getting hired. Seems he’s still living off Lock Stock and Snatch, over 20 years later.
The bomb also means they need to hire a new interpreter, and they get Ahmed, played by Danish-Iraqi actor Dar Salim. He and John do not get along, don’t seem to like each other, but need to build trust to work together. That’s the emotional ‘blokes bonding with blokes’ hook in virtually every Guy Ritchie movie sorted out, so on with a refreshingly simple plot.
One day, John, Ahmed and the boys are out looking for a Taliban IED factory when they’re ambushed and everyone is killed. This is, of course, underscored by orchestral music to heighten the sacred nature of US soldiers being killed in battle in order to take out one shipping container and a couple of half-built suicide vests.
This leads to John and Ahmed escaping together, and trying to make the 120 km journey back to base while avoiding the Taliban and any other militias who are looking for them. Unlike Mo from Kandahar, Ahmed is highly competent – he uses weapons, he’s smart, he forms a good team with John. They find a small abandoned house and stop for the night, but in the morning the Taliban find them and John is shot in the arm and the leg, and beaten upside the head with rifle butts.
Ahmed goes full Conan the Afghan, kills several Taliban, rescues John, builds a makeshift stretcher and literally drags him out of there on his back. The next half hour or so, where John is mostly unconscious and being transported by Ahmed all the way back to the base, is the best part of the film. It’s largely told without dialogue, but we see Ahmed struggling first with the stretcher, then they’re in a car for a while, then he swaps that for a wooden cart and some opium, to help John with the pain so he can survive the rest of the journey. He has to kill some more Taliban en route, but makes it all the way back, saving John’s life.
Aside from glorifying the deaths of US soldiers and trivialising the deaths of anonymous, towel-headed Afghans, the first act of The Covenant is genuinely watchable. It could do with a few less on screen bits of text explaining who people are, especially when it really doesn’t matter, and they could have picked more imaginative names than John and Ahmed. But Dar Salim puts in an excellent performance – you can see he really is dragging the stretcher and pushing the cart, all in the baking sun of rural Afghanistan (actually Spain, which is arguably even hotter). If the movie had solely been about this story, I wouldn’t have had much of a problem with it.
But then, it becomes a different movie. John gets home to his boring wife and kids, heals from his injuries, and sets about trying to get Ahmed and his family the visas they were promised. This does offer up a nice montage of him losing his shit on the phone to unhelpful government bureaucrats, threatening to track them down and so on. I found all that extremely relatable, but the problem is that it makes it all about John’s frustration rather than Ahmed being betrayed. We rarely see him hiding out in Afghanistan, and never see the stress on him and his wife and infant child.
That’s because this is a film aimed at a Western audience, and John is a metaphor for the entire US military while Ahmed is a metaphor for the good Afghans. The message comes across very distinctly: we owe the Afghans a debt, so we should go back in.
The second half of the movie is an episode of Homeland, where John flies back into Afghanistan, finds Ahmed and his family, and gets to the rendezvous point where the private security firm he’s hired is going to scoop them out of the country. This is largely uninteresting because you know he’s going to be successful. While there is genuine tension in the first half of the story, this is completely absent from the second half.
The climax comes at Darunta dam – a massive hydroelectric plant that was, at different times, used by the Soviets, the mujahideen, Al Qaeda, the NATO forces and the Taliban. This is the extraction point, and John and Ahmed successfully get his family there, but they’re surrounded by Taliban, they run out of ammunition and then there’s 20-30 seconds of slow mo, drawn out, orchestral soundtracked build up while we wait for the inevitable last-second rescue.
That rescue comes in the form of stock footage of a US Air Force Spectre gunship, and we even get a bit of collateral murder video-style POV footage as it mows down dozens of anonymous ragheads. Then the private security contractors arrive on scene, and extract John, Ahmed and the wife and kid, flying off into the sunset to the sound of victory.
So why didn’t the DOD support the film? Why did they have to go to Spain for military equipment and access to a base? We know they approached them for the stock footage, did they ask for full support but were turned down? I suspect so, and I’m guessing it’s because of scenes such as John smoking opium to help with the pain, and his team shooting a wounded, unarmed man when they realise he was the one whose truck blew up and killed Jack Jack.
There is also the lingering sense of betrayal of the Afghans who helped the US forces, even though it’s transmogrified into a tubthumping feeling of ‘we should go back in and sort it out’. There is some more on screen text at the end of the movie about Afghan interpreters, which may have pissed off the Army or DOD.
However, the finished film, much like season one of Jack Jack Ryan, seems to have met with DOD and Army approval.
The Covenant was shown at a special screening at Fort Irwin, attended by Dar Salim and Jake Gyllenhaal. Military.com highlighted several other advance screenings before the movie’s release, all at military bases.
As such, we have to conclude that both of these films were made for reasons that were not primarily commercial, they weren’t made to make money, but to try to form and reform people’s opinions about Afghanistan. While also fetishising the nuking of Iran, portraying Afghans as mostly idiotic dipshits and backwards fanatics, but also in need of noble white saviours to come in and rescue them from this mess they’ve created. The Covenant and Kandahar are a call to arms against Iran and the Taliban, supported by a NATO nation and NATO’s most important ally in the region.