‘Retrograde’ Review: An Unflinching Look at the Last Days of the U.S. in Afghanistan

Telluride: Matthew Heineman's latest documentary watches the doom unfold.
National Geographic

Regardless of politics, we can all agree that the U.S. military’s exit from Afghanistan, a country our armed forces had occupied for two decades, turned into a shitshow. Not the exit itself, which was orderly and swift in the manner of a rehearsed tactical operation, but the aftermath, which saw nearly an entire country retaken by the very enemy the U.S. had assisted them in fighting for twenty years. Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Retrograde” watches the doom unfold. 

The film starts by following a troop of American Green Berets deployed to Camp Shorab whose orders are to train the Afghan military in modern combat, teaching them how to use the weapons they’ll need to continue fighting the Taliban on home soil. The camp is outfitted with attack helicopters, surveillance blimps, tanks, rockets, and everything the local army needs to be taught how to use. 

The operation had barely begun when, as we all know by now, President Biden announced that the U.S. was pulling out of the country, and would do so completely by August 21, 2021. The U.S. special forces at Camp Shorab realize that their time to train the Afghani recruits has been shortened by half, and must break the news to their comrades, along with their truncated training schedule. The rest of the training goes decidedly OK, while the American troops are busy destroying anything that could be used against us if the Taliban were to take over the base, and then eventually, somewhat reluctantly, leave. We all remember what happened next. 

“Retrograde” is Heineman’s latest feature documentary after “The First Wave,” which followed a New York City hospital during the catastrophic first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic. His new film is similarly doom-laden, with cameras watching closely as their subjects’ faces and demeanors become increasingly more worn and drawn as they days tick by. In “Retrograde,” a protagonist of sorts emerges in Sami Sadat, the media-savvy Afghan National Army general who became something of an international celebrity as the War on Terror went on and on. Over the course of the film, we watch Sadat come to terms with the fact that the American forces may not be enough to stop the Taliban from retaking the country once they leave, all the while trying as much as he can to inspire confidence in his own men while they cope with feelings of being abandoned. 

The film feels like a closer look than normal at the machine of armed conflict: images of the depersonalization of modern war — a group of soldiers gathered around a computer watching passively as a drone strike blows up an enemy truck — are intercut with the awkward camaraderie of base camp dinner parties, soldiers FaceTiming with their colleagues back in the States, others calling to make sure their families are safe.

There’s a combined anxiety and monotony to it all, a feeling of boredom and exhaustion brought on by a decades-spanning conflict. “Were you born when this war started?” a green beret casually asks another soldier who looks barely old enough to enlist. The camera lingers on a giant pile of printouts, maps, blueprints, and electronics as they’re set aflame. Extra ammunition is used to incapacitate the tanks they can’t take with them. 

Because we already know how it all ends, there’s a sense of foreboding that permeates every bit of footage, as if everyone involved also has the prescience of what we can see now only in hindsight. To watch terror become desperation become despair is wrenching, more so because this puts names and faces to events the rest of us are fortunate enough to read about while sitting on our couches.

The Taliban retook half of the districts of Afghanistan only months after the U.S. announced its withdrawal. Sadat is currently living under the asylum of the United Kingdom after the Taliban put a price on his head. The film takes its name from a military term: the “10-day retrograde” period of time that the American troops had to clean the camp of unnecessary tactical equipment. Outside of the military, the word has a stronger definition: of backwards motion, a contrary direction, a swift regression into the past.

Grade: B

“Retrograde” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. NatGeo will release it at a later date.

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