This Memorial Day, there is one movie in theaters that addresses directly the experiences of veterans. While American families are entertained by the Super Mario Bros. movie, now a billion-dollar proposition worldwide, people who prefer more true-to-life action can see the movie I recommend, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, which has barely made any money, even though it’s an exciting, gripping experience, and it’s got a star, Jake Gyllenhaal.
The story is very simple: Gyllenhaal plays special operations Sgt. John Kinley, in charge of a small unit in Afghanistan in 2018, tasked with destroying Taliban IED factories. IEDs accounted for a very large minority of American deaths in recent wars, and there seemed to be no way to stop them. It meant that American troops operated in what the late international relations professor Angelo Codevilla called “replenishing mine fields.”
Sgt. Kinley understands this and is committed to protecting his troops in this terrible situation. Of course, to operate in Afghanistan, he needs interpreters. When he loses his interpreter to a bomb attack, along with one of his men, he recruits a new one. Ahmed (played by Dar Salim) is a man with a past who also has his own grudge against the Taliban, and the two find it difficult to work together because they are both strong willed. Fighting together, they gradually come to see each other as competent and trustworthy, until they are caught in a trap in a deadly firefight.
At first, Sgt. Kinley is in command, because firepower counts most; but soon they are in far too much trouble to shoot their way out, and the interpreter Ahmed takes control, because he knows the lay of the land and the people—Afghanistan is his country, after all. Indeed, Ahmed, ends up saving Sgt. Kinley’s life, heroically taking him to safety after he gets wounded, facing harrowing dangers while hunted by Taliban death squads.
The second part of the movie has to do with the debt Sgt. Kinley believes he incurred thereby. Once he recovers in body and mind from his wounds, discharged from the military and again a civilian in the bosom of his family, he faces the prospect of going mad trying to help Ahmed get the visa he was promised for risking his life to work for the American military. The bureaucracy and the feeling of helplessness lead Sgt. Kinley to take matters into his own hands.
Of course, this is not just a very competent thriller—it also deals with a real and recent issue. The American government did make promises to interpreters who put their lives on the line, yet after the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, they were left stranded. American veterans who feel honor bound to such men try and do what’s right, often stymied by bureaucracy. The shame and suffering of such a predicament explain perhaps why we look away.
But we risk losing some of our understanding and memory of the nobility of the men who served in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian wars if we do not contemplate such examples of the dedication of men who fight for a cause together and face danger and death together. If the idea that democracy could be spread by war is now deemed overly idealistic (to say the very least), then at least military equality between men at war is real and praiseworthy. The Covenant, as the title indicates, is dedicated to that rare experience, and it thus honors men much better than the politicians who mismanage such wars, which is why I recommend it.
I also recommend star Jake Gyllenhaal’s work more broadly. He has recently become the most interesting actor in Hollywood. He reminds me of Nicolas Cage, who was the most interesting actor of the 1990s, because his performances and choices regarding movies and directors revealed the drama of American pop culture after the Cold War, not just the trends, the momentary popularity, or the pursuit of glamour.
Starting about a decade back, when he made End of Watch with director David Ayer in 2012 and Enemy with Denis Villeneuve in 2013, Gyllenhaal shed his boyish career and started embodying the agony of men in our times. To give only two more examples, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) eviscerated the moral ugliness of the media, and fashion designer Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) became the best movie about the horror of abortion.
All these movies have in common a suspicion that below the surface of American life lie secrets that we would find too disturbing to contemplate. For one example, industries that make our everyday experience what it is, from the police to the media, don’t themselves fit into our ordinary lives but involve dark necessities and moral questions that test souls. Indeed, they could lead ordinary men to madness or worse for the sake of something no more momentous than our middle-class way of life.
The Covenant seems only partly to fit this pattern. It has in common with Gyllenhaal’s other movies an insistence on agonized manliness handled by a director of some renown, in this case Guy Ritchie, who doesn’t quite fit into Hollywood. Such artists, like the agonized manly characters themselves, can’t find a way to win honors without becoming part of a corrupting industry.
But The Covenant is not about the darkness hidden in the quotidian experiences of middle-class America. It seems to have nothing of the uncanny or sordid about it. It’s about what’s known or expected to be shocking and deadly—war. But it does fit the pattern of the other films in a way, because it is also about the military, and about the moral and political fallout of the Afghanistan retreat. Indeed, it’s a story set in 2018, during the collapse of the effort to pacify that country, which had started with a righteous fury against the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11.
Hence, The Covenant is a reflection on American politics in the 21st century, the War on Terror, and the way it became, after years of setbacks or failures, an item on the news, something boring or even embarrassing in the background of other more pressing national troubles and the busy goings on of our private lives, and eventually forgotten. Do we have troops in other countries now? Sure, some, somewhere, we can’t say for what purpose or what they are doing and what they are suffering. But we should know that they are there, serving America, and The Covenant reminds us of that uncomfortable fact.