‘Mosul’ movie finally brings Iraq’s war on ISIS to the screen

How does the movie compare to a real life war experience?

A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS)
A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2017
Halfway through the film Mosul I found myself looking at my phone. This wasn’t because I was bored. It was because I wanted to find a photo of burned cars piled on top of one another.
The film had captured the alleyways of the Old City of Mosul on the western bank of the Tigris River, sometimes called the “right side” because it is on your right-hand side when going downstream.
The scenes were so accurate that I wanted to compare them to something I had seen in late March 2017 when I was in the battle for Mosul with Iraq’s Federal Police units. Sure enough, I found the burned cars and it looked almost identical to the scene in the film.
Mosul, on Netflix, was produced by Anthony and Joe Russo and directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. It follows an Iraqi policeman who is suddenly press-ganged into an elite Nineveh SWAT unit that is fighting against ISIS in the city. The cop, named Kawa, is actually of Kurdish origin, according to the script, and he was played by Tunisian actor Adam Bessa.
According to the story, the SWAT team is led by a man called Maj. Jasem, a kind of rogue zealot leading them on an impossible mission and showing no mercy to the ISIS genocidal terrorists. Some have complained that the film gives too much credit to this unit, making Iranian-backed militias out to be less capable, and making the Iraqi Federal Police appear to have less of a role.
The fact is that the film, like any war film, can’t tell the story of the whole war. Like Band of Brothers, it’s a movie about a unit. Sangar Khaleel, a Kurdish fixer from Mosul, tweeted that he was a cultural adviser on the film and that it was based on a story in The New Yorker by Luke Mogelson from January 2017 about the “desperate battle” for the city.
“Many things are changed,” from the real story, Khaleel wrote.
THE BATTLE for Mosul was fought in stages. I was there during the opening moves to take the city in October 2016. At that time, the Kurdish Peshmerga, perched on the hills overlooking the Nineveh plains, swept ISIS from a series of villages on the approaches to the city – while the Iraqi Army, consisting of armored and infantry units that the US-led coalition had helped train, equip and advise, moved into Bartella, Qaraqosh and other towns east of the city.
To break ISIS, which had some 5,000 fighters, Iraq arrayed tens of thousands of its own fighters from the army, the ISOF or counterterrorism service and the Federal Police. Shi’ite militias were sent west of the city to cut it off from Syria. Then the city, under siege, would be slowly digested, like Stalingrad during World War II.
The writer during the battle for Mosul, Iraq (Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
The writer during the battle for Mosul, Iraq (Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
I was there when the Iraqi 9th Armored Division and other units began the assaults around Qaraqosh and when ISIS retreated from the Nawaran and Bashiqa fronts. Later, after I’d left, the ISOF and CTS units with their black Humvees were used to try to break into Mosul; many of their units were chewed up in street battles. This forms part of the backdrop for the film. Somewhere in the early part of the film, ISIS mocks the Nineveh SWAT team for having lost six of its nine Humvees in recent battles.
I went back to Mosul in March and April 2017, as ISIS had been totally surrounded in the old part of the city, on the western side of the Tigris. To get there was a long, circuitous drive. It felt like something from Apocalypse Now when Capt. Benjamin Willard says “it was a real choice mission – and when it was over, I never wanted another.” Indeed, after Mosul, I never wanted to cover any more war; the carnage was enough.
THE FILM does a good job of evoking this carnage, showing ISIS shooting down civilians and portraying the oddities of house-to-house fighting, such as when the men take a break to smoke shisha or trade cigarettes for ammo. It also develops the characters a bit, at least in that they are distinguishable from one another – unlike many recent war movies in Western cinema. They certainly got the feel and look of parts of the city right.
Whether the film is perfectly accurate about this unit – or blends a bunch of stories into one, the way Full Metal Jacket does – may not matter as much as the fact that the film depicts the fighters without the need for some European or Western character to make it approachable to Western audiences.
There is a hint in Mosul of what will come in the aftermath as well. While the men are on a lonely rogue mission, the backdrop is the city destroyed by this war. The men don’t want to see more airstrikes, and they don’t want Iranian-backed militias taking over the city.
This evokes the struggles Mosul has today. It was once the second-largest city in Iraq and also a heartland for Saddam-era Sunni Arab officers. It was also once more diverse, with Kurds, Shabaks, Yazidis, Shi’ites and Christians living there. It had Jews once also. But ISIS expelled the minorities, and today the city is a slowly recovering shell of what it once was. The movie hints that this will be the fate of the city, its historical residents killed off one by one.
Luckily, the film has no mercy for ISIS, no moralizing about the terrorists’ “human rights.” ISIS showed no mercy for its enemies, and did not deserve any mercy in return. When I was in Mosul in 2017 we met a man whose relatives had been executed by ISIS, and he had to bury them himself in his backyard. That was the reality of this war.