When President Biden ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, he hoped to put an end to America’s longest war. Much of America seemed ready to put an end to its memory, as well. Public discourse and news coverage quickly shifted to the invasion of Ukraine and the mid-term elections, burying the scars of a 20-year conflict under the weight of America’s short attention span.
But one handful of filmmakers isn’t ready to move on. Their National Geographic documentary “Retrograde” – available on several streaming platforms – captures the humanity behind America’s abrupt exit and its impact on those who remained.
“I hope it reignites a conversation around the war in Afghanistan and the people we left behind,” said director Matthew Heineman in an interview with Military Families Magazine.
“Retrograde” initially centers on a dozen Army Green Berets assigned as advisors to Afghan forces in the Helmand Province, led by Gen. Sami Sadat, commander of the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps. But the film is soon forced to pivot to Sadat as its protagonist, as the Green Berets are grieved to learn they’ll be departing on short notice.
“There we were sitting there in Helmand Province and Biden announces he’s pulling out the troops,” said producer Caitlin McNally, who initially wanted to capture the full deployment and reintegration cycle of a Green Beret unit serving in Afghanistan. “We were fortunate to have embedded with a Green Beret team that was working with Gen. Sadat, because he’s this extraordinary human and such a rare fighter.”
Throughout the remainder of the documentary, the filmmakers follow Sadat, a strikingly capable leader whose sheer force of will seems enough to lead his forces and country to successful resistance against the Taliban. The viewer finds themself invigorated, hopeful for a happy ending to a story we know ends in tragedy.
“Part of the narrative tension is this man, who despite every metaphorical neon sign saying, ‘Stop. Give up. Surrender. It’s over. Your country is fallen,’ had this unwavering belief in himself and his men … this unwavering belief until the final days,” Heineman said.
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The Oscar-nominated Heineman is no stranger to heavy topics. Having explored Mexican drug cartels and citizen resistance to ISIS in Syria in past films, his storytelling in “Retrograde” avoids the formulaic and sensationalized documentary styles that saturate Netflix and other streaming services. Instead, he lets the audience share space alongside Green Berets and Sadat as they share a fireside cigar, retreat from pressing Taliban gunfire, or navigate the emotional implosion that comes with watching one’s own people fall to its oppressors.
“That’s my style of filmmaking for better or worse,” Heineman said. “There’s been thousands of news pieces, blogs, social media posts, pontificating on this war. … That was never the intent of this film. The intent of this film is to put you on the ground, in those rooms, in those helicopters, at that airport. Allow you to feel, ‘What if that was me?’ What if that was my cousin? My brother?’”
The filmmakers also hope to spur conversation, helping recenter the non-military American conscience on a war too quickly forgotten. Executive producer Baktash Ahadi, who also served as a translator for U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, hopes the film can serve as a point of connection between Afghanistan veterans and their families, as well.
“I would love for military family members … to have a conversation with them about what they’re going through,” Ahadi said. “Use this film as a starting place to have the courage to have that conversation.”