Filmmaker Guy Ritchie, best known for his complex, intersecting narratives set in gritty underworlds and often laced with biting
and incisive dialogue (as seen in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch), takes an uncharacteristic detour with his latest film, The Covenant, a stripped-down war drama. It’s his most compelling work in years.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as John Kinley, a
sergeant stationed in
searching for Taliban IED factories. Among his platoon is Ahmed (Dar Salim), a local Afghan working for the Americans as an interpreter.
BIDEN’S DEBT GAMES ARE ALL PLAYED OUT
Where The Covenant distinguishes itself from the usual slew of war movies set in the Middle East is in its focus on the overlooked yet indispensable interpreters, whose contributions were critical to the successful execution of missions.
Among the film’s many triumphs is its potent portrayal of the acrimony that the interpreters faced from Taliban affiliates whose oppressive regime brooked no dissent. In one particularly chilling early scene, a captured insurgent brands Ahmed a traitor, threatening his family and hissing, “You turned your back on your own people.” Moreover, The Covenant also highlights the reams of detractors across Afghanistan who demurred at the Taliban’s hostile takeover of their country following the brutal civil war in 1996. In a subsequent scene, a group of locals concedes their enmity toward the terrorist organization, choosing to aid Ahmed and the American sergeant.
Despite its outward simplicity, The Covenant resists simplistic categorizations. It’s not a one-dimensional anti-war screed nor a jingoistic paean to power. Instead, the film embraces traditional values such as honor, loyalty, and personal responsibility, which resonate throughout its narrative.
It is in the aftermath of a Taliban ambush that decimates Kinley’s team and leaves him incapacitated and on the precipice of death that these themes are manifested. Rescuing him from the clutches of his kidnappers, Ahmed emerges as the unlikely hero, with a quiet determination, navigating rocky terrains and expansive deserts, dragging Kinley’s unconscious body to safety.
The film is bookended by two powerful acts of salvation, forging a compelling bond between Ahmed and Kinley. The ensuing second act sees Kinley grappling with his indebtedness to Ahmed, who remains stranded in perilous Taliban territory. As Kinley recuperates in the safety of his suburban California home, Ahmed’s predicament haunts his dreams and weighs heavily on his conscience, underscoring the stark contrast in their circumstances. Gyllenhaal masterfully exudes the gnawing sense of responsibility; he knows he has a debt to pay.
The intermezzo ties together these two mirrored rescue missions. Naively believing government bureaucrats could help him, Kinley is subjected to enough hold music to warrant its own intermission. Finally, an operator responds, only to inquire about a background check for Ahmed’s three-month-old child. Evoking Mikhail Bulgakov’s lampooning of Soviet bureaucracy, the film portrays these government agencies as inefficient monoliths, seemingly run by imbeciles.
Having exhausted both his nerves and government agencies to call, Kinley turns to a private security contractor in a desperate bid to rescue Ahmed and secure visas for his family. “I want you to honor the deal,” Kinley implores, emphasizing not just his personal commitment to Ahmed, but also symbolizing the broader obligations America owes to its allies. This narrative arc serves as a potent reminder of the grim reality faced by many Afghan allies following the U.S. withdrawal. For many Afghans, the invasive American military presence paradoxically provided a safe harbor from the unyielding brutality of the Taliban.
While The Covenant largely refrains from explicit political commentary, in line with Guy Ritchie’s centrist stance, it communicates far more profoundly through its vivid imagery than it ever could through preachy dialogue. As the credits roll, the impact of President Joe Biden’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan reverberates through every frame. The stark and haunting aftermath of his decision, which left Afghan allies at the mercy of a resurgent Taliban, lingers long after the film’s run time, leaving viewers with a palpable sense of the devastating consequences. The Covenant’s politics may be subtle, but the message is glaring: pay your debts.
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Harry Khachatrian (
) is a film critic for the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog and a computer engineer in Toronto, pursuing his MBA.