The world already saw the scene that opens Matthew Heineman’s bristling documentary Retrograde. It was an apparent conclusion — the doomsday chaos of Kabul airport in August 2021, as the US military at last left Afghanistan. Heineman stayed on with his crew. By then he had already been in the country eight months.
And so his study of the end of an occupation rewinds to the start of that year, a dwindled American presence in Helmand province still training Afghan soldiers to keep their own peace after an undated handover. History, of course, is always circling. Among the Taliban, it is pointed out, are many men who were the babies of fathers killed during the 2001 invasion.
Heineman is best known for Cartel Land, his film about the Mexican drug war, a project that, like Retrograde, married a widescreen aesthetic and startling access. Here that access gets close-up indeed once the exit is formalised. With US decision-makers kept pointedly off-camera, a multi-sided portrait takes shape on the ground: Afghan troops readying (or not) with increasing unease; local interpreters turning anxious; ever more downcast American troops dutifully wrecking computer equipment.
The result is at once fascinating and unbearable: a chronicle of a can kicked forever down the road finally and terribly coming to a halt.
In UK cinemas from November 11