In 2002, American forces engaged and took control of Afghanistan. Twenty years later, America left the region as fractured and dangerous as ever. In terms of American involvement, the stalemate with the Taliban simply prolonged the action and expanded the resources required to mount a long-term occupation of the country. Regardless of where you sit on the political aisle, how Afghanistan tumbled into militant rule within days of America’s departure should concern you. Documentarian Matthew Heineman assembles a stunning portrait of the Afghan soldiers seeking to save the new lives they’ve built. In the shadow of American imperialism, Retrograde observes soldiers facing the punishing reality of standing up for their ideals.

Nine months before the American withdrawal, Western forces still hold Afghanistan. However, when President Biden announces the withdrawal of US Forces, local Afghan troops begin to take a more active role in their military operations. A young general, Sami Sadat, looks to lead his men into a new era. However, as the country begins to fall to new Taliban factions, he realizes the enormity of his position in saving the new Afghanistan.

Heineman and his documentary crew capture tense and harrowing moments as the tide of Afghan rule begins to shift. More than once, documentarians are present for firefights and killing. The sounds of gunfire ricocheting off helicopters and armored vehicles become the upsetting soundtrack to Retrograde. The sense of danger is established quickly as we observe the desperation of those seeking to find their place on the planes leaving Kabul. This telegraphs the truth about the Afghan withdrawal, creating a dark shadow over the delicate peace from months earlier.

The portrait of Sadat showcases a man caught trying to change his country and the weight that it creates on a person. Not only does he face unfathomable risks for himself, but he must handle the mental burden of protecting his family. Everyone in his life is at risk, and the scariest part of all is how accessible he’s made himself. It’s a profile in courage, but Heineman wisely showcases the mental anguish this creates for him. If Sadat is to lead Afganhistan into the future, he will risk everything to do so.

The strength of Retrograde comes in its ability to function as both a study of character and the deteriorating political situation in Afganhistan. To embed with these soldiers at this moment highlights the danger faced by Heineman and his team. This is heroic, but essential work to understanding how a decades long struggle came crashing to its violent conclusion.

Alan’s Rating: 8/10

What do you think of Retrograde? Let us know in the comments below! Retrograde is distributed by National Geographic.

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