‘Retrograde’ Is the Daring Doc That Gives You a Front-Row Seat to Afghanistan War Wreckage

Matthew Heineman/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films
Matthew Heineman/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films

Retrograde is a documentary of faces, which convey a depth of fear and despair that resounds louder than any of its anguished pleas, sorrowful apologies, and futile promises. The latest from Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, A Private War), this on-the-ground snapshot of the United States’ 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan—viewed primarily through the eyes of one of the country’s bravest and staunchest local commanders—is a study of a betrayal and its heartbreaking fallout. No matter one’s opinion about the justness of the Afghanistan War, it’s a damning film that does President Joe Biden no favors.

Spanning the final nine months of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Retrograde (Dec. 8 on National Geographic Channel; Dec. 9 on Disney+; Dec. 11 on Hulu) begins in August 2021 at Kabul Airport, where soldiers fire machine gun rounds into the air in an attempt to disperse the frantic crowds threatening to overrun the facility. In this mess, someone screams out for their father, a woman cradles her infant while wearing a COVID mask beneath her nose, and people scurry this way and that. One mother is told that she needs an American passport in order to proceed, and turns around and disappears into the throngs. Others huddle together with their children in their arms along a fence topped with barbed wire. A flare cascades slowly to the ground, illuminating visages that are exhausted, beleaguered, terrified.

It’s a scene of desperation teetering on the edge of calamity, and though that disaster will eventually materialize, Retrograde first rewinds eight months to January 2021 to take up residence alongside defensive forces at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province. There, a team of 12 U.S. Army Green Berets advise and assist a 150,000-strong unit of Afghan National Army soldiers who are led by General Sami Sadat. From a Colorado base, LTC Matthew Chaney remarks to the Berets that “we’re in this together” and that he believes the Afghan leaders are well-positioned for the long haul and “can get it done.” In Afghanistan, Sadat is equally confident, telling his men, “I’m standing with you every step of the way… you will never be left alone.”

These sentiments are sincere but there are concerns, even at this point, about an impending withdrawal. Everyone senses that the U.S.’s 20-year “Forever War” in Afghanistan is coming to a close. At the same time, though, there’s a belief—at least on the Americans’ side—that it won’t be a flip-the-switch sort of retreat, since that would be “disastrous” and leave the country open to being retaken by the Taliban, which seems inconceivable in light of the thousands of lives lost throughout the course of this two-decade mission. The Americans therefore continue onward, coordinating with Sadat to provide medical assistance to the wounded (one of whom exclaims from his stretcher, “Taliban motherfucker, this al-Qaeda motherfucker”) and to successfully drone-strike a collection of Taliban fighters spied, on satellite feeds, making moves with military-grade weaponry.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Tim Grucza/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films</div>
Tim Grucza/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films

Heineman embeds himself with these men, and in brief, telling snippets, he captures the camaraderie, respect, and devotion they feel for each other. Their collaboration is a genuine and loyal one, and thus when President Biden declares that America has accomplished its goals in Afghanistan and can no longer perpetuate an endless battle against the Taliban—at an annual cost of billions—it hits the Americans still stationed at Camp Shorabak hard. The silence that greets this televised announcement, as well as the looks of disappointment and disgust, are piercing and matched by the stunned expressions of Afghan comrades who immediately must reckon with a future that’s devoid of American support and destined to devolve into intense conflict with the Taliban.

A stocky, round-faced man whose father fought in the resistance and was arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban, Sadat is a doggedly optimistic commander whether he’s rallying his troops in person or demanding further assistance on the phone with superiors. Retrograde sticks to him as things start falling apart—which they inevitably do, and with a swiftness that takes everyone by surprise. Heineman depicts this descent in up-close-and-personal fashion: joining the Americans as they fulfill their orders to destroy their supplies (including their ammunition, which they can’t bequeath to their fellow Afghan fighters, much to their dismay); taking a seat on an attack helicopter as it goes after a target; and huddling beside Sadat and his associates as they hide from enemy sniper fire in Lashkar Gah, a city that becomes the front lines of a campaign against the Taliban that they’re doomed to lose.

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Heineman appears to be in routine danger in Retrograde, which is nothing new for the documentarian but nonetheless gives the material an additional, potent immediacy. Far from glamorizing such peril (or calling attention to his own presence), the director maintains strict focus on his subjects, who shake their heads in saddened resignation, hopelessly stare off into space, and tearfully implore others for help. Sadat’s countenance, and demeanor, encapsulates this historical turning point, shifting from staunch and defiant to forlorn and lost. That latter outlook is echoed by the thousands of Afghans who ultimately amass on the wall of the Americans’ base, where soldiers are forced to pick and choose who receives safe passage, and who—because of space constraints and/or missing and erroneous documentation—will have to stay and endure the coming Taliban storm.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Matthew Heineman/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films</div>
Matthew Heineman/OTP/Nat Geo Documentary Films

Using intermittent news-report audio as a Greek chorus for this tragedy, Heineman offers no overt political commentary because none is necessary; the personal and national nightmare born from Biden’s decision is plain for all to see. Moreover, it’s underscored by a clip of Sheikh Khalid Hanafi, the Taliban’s Minister of Vice & Virtue, declaring to acolytes (on the eve of their takeover of the country), “These Americans came here and dishonored our sisters and brothers for the past 20 years. Did they not invade our homeland? Did they not attack our thoughts and beliefs? Those elements trained by the Jews should not be forgiven.”

Leaving larger arguments about the Afghanistan War to other documentaries, Retrograde simply reveals that, in departing the Middle Eastern country, America abandoned those it had sworn to protect against the Taliban, consigning them to a fate of violent theocratic persecution. As such, it’s a powerhouse that elicits despondence, horror, and shame.

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