The Longest War
I can’t remember the last time I saw two films from the same director come out in the same year, bit here we are. Back in April I reviewed Greg Baker’s Sergio, a somewhat disappointing biopic of a UN diplomat working in some troubled parts of the world. Baker is a documentarian primarily, and it certainly felt like he may have over-reached himself by turning to fictionalised narrative. Well, if that is the case, then The Longest War should be right in his wheelhouse, a documentary from a documentarian who has plenty of priors when it comes to this subject matter. Released stateside earlier this year, an agreement with Sky Documentaries means that I can now take it in.
With the subject matter of this film, we are back to the kinds of topics that dominated my own time in academia in the long, long ago of 2009/10, namely the US War on Terror and its main battlegrounds in Iraq and the somewhat longer conflict in Afghanistan. The war in the latter has been one of the biggest quagmires of recent military history from an American perspective, a conflict that it seems a large proportion of the American people and body politic would like to forget even exists. Shining a light on it, and on how it is a war that just refuses to end, is no bad thing. But is this piece, apparently some kind of companion documentary for the final season of Homeland, the best way to do it?
Director Greg Barker crafts a narrative about Afghanistan’s history in the later decades of the 20th and early decades of the 21st century, from the invasion of the Soviet Union all the way up to the recent, tentative, agreement between the US and the re-emerging Taliban. It is a region that has seen a varied, tragic and bloody struggle between many competing factions: caught in the middle consistently are the oft-forgotten Afghan people themselves, continually left wondering when the bloodshed will end.
One of the most depressing things about The Longest War, apart from the title, occurs in the opening stages, when a timeline infographic goes slowly back through the decades, covering key dates in the American relationship with Afghanistan. We get Trump’s deal, and Obama’s commitments and drone war, and Bush’s surge, and the 2001 invasion. And then it keeps going. The Taliban nightmare, becomes the civil war, becomes the Soviet invasion. All the way back to Jimmy Carter we go, and it’s through this that you really begin to understand the enormity of what the title represents. The United States has, whether it is all-out military occupation or CIA special ops teams, been enmeshed in Afghanistan for the better part of 40 years, and probably more when you really think about it. And really, there is no sure sign that they are capable of untangling themselves any time soon, not while the region remains a hotbed of unrest and anti-American radicalisation. Oh, and drone bases.
The familiar beats, themes and narratives are all present here, outlined to the audience in an understandable fashion. The somewhat liberal life-style of pre-Soviet Afghan’s seems like something from another world, but is still fondly remembered by an older generation. In combating the Soviet’s as part of the twilight struggle, the United States put guns in the hands of dangerous people, who inevitably turned those guns back against the people who presented them. The Taliban sent Afghanistan into a cultural dark age, before the US invasion did the job physically. Since then it’s been quandary, quagmire, chaos and cacophony: the Afghan people yearn for stability and freedom, and find it continually denied to them in various ways. The US’ efforts to provide it are badly directed and failing. It isn’t mission creep, as one interviewee says, but “mission fantasy”.
But what then is the point of The Longest War? What is the angle, what is the insight? We know about the basic facts of Afghanistan and the United States, so what is it that Baker is trying to say with this feature? I’m sorry to say that, honestly, I’m not really sure. The Longest War appears to be something that is meant to be part-educational, insofar as it is an explanation of everything that I have outlined above, and part-portrait, in the way that the figures interviewed are given the opportunity to outline their feelings on the situation, and on what they hope for in the future. But the meshing of the two doesn’t work out so great.
The first part is fine, but as stated it is nothing to get too excited about. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the history of the region will find little in this account that will surprise them, whether it is the CIA arming of Osama bin Laden back in the 80’s, or the more recent use of drones in a widespread, often indiscriminate, manner. It works as a simple introduction to the question mark that is Afghanistan and the United States, but little more beyond that.
Baker perhaps is aiming a little low in that regard, not trusting his audience to be fully in-tune with the subject matter (could this be a consequence of America’s general malaise when it comes to news from Afghanistan?), and instead resorting to somewhat trite sentiment. “I don’t see how this ends” says one person, and one wonders if Barker could actually make some suggestions: the best that he does is leaving the last five minutes to Afghan academics, engaging in some idealistic vision-making of what they hope Afghanistan can be. If Barker means to leave us on a high note, I am not really sure that he succeeds. It is in this that the film feels the most like an addendum to Homeland.
It is in the time that the film allots to a few of the ordinary people of Afghanistan, and a few of the extraordinary people who have been based there over the years, that Barker finds something more worthy of the 90 minutes he has to put out. There is a healthy mixture in here: CIA special ops leaders who matter-of-factly outline what they were doing in-country in the 1980’s; CIA special ops leaders from the next generation completely adamant that the physical and mental torture of detainees was justified for the information it got the perpetrators (no it wasn’t, for the record, and the guy saying that would be in cuffs if he was from a different country); Afghani students who got caught up in terrorist attacks while in the pursuit of a better life; diplomats who give the appearance of having “gone native”, but who are probably instrumental to stopping the bloodshed, albeit temporarily; government strategists having to weigh the importance of what they are trying to achieve in Afghanistan next to the families they leave behind to do so; Afghan business people trying to be at the forefront of a new Afghanistan that seems terminally incapable of rising from the ashes; counter-insurgency experts trying to both explain, and perhaps excuse, the nature of the mission they were trying to implement in Afghanistan.
Barker forms a rich enough tapestry with the cavalcade of talking heads, and it is good that at least half of the focus is given to either Afghan’s or ex-pats resident in the region for decades. Still, one can’t get away from the feeling that there just isn’t enough to The Longest War. Maybe as a serialised TV series it could have the opportunity to reach into the subject in a bit more detail. Much like with the fictionalised Sergio earlier this year, Barker doesn’t seem to have the time or the technique to do the subject matter the required justice. The Longest War feels like a film that is being made as an introductory lecture for high school students. Some may not take that as a criticism, but I do mean it as such: given the method of distribution, and Baker’s back catalogue, I honestly was expecting a bit more than this.
The Longest War does benefit from being a very polished looking production, despite the apparently short amount of time that Barker had. There is a nice mix of techniques and documentarian style evident here, including the use of engaging info-graphics, the suitable inclusion of lots of carefully curated archive footage, the Ken Burns effect in full effect, intermingled with the aforementioned talking heads. There’s little in the way of motion, and depictions of those talking heads in movement, such as a few driving cars while being interviewed, seem like strange inserts, manufactured attempts to generate dynamism, but those are brief moments. The Longest War trips along nicely as well: in line with its simplicity, which I have criticised, it is fair to say that it is also very easy to follow. Its primarily television home is a suitable one: this is the kind of film that I think does not require a theatrical release, and may, in a strange way, have benefited from the total lack of choice in that regard, given present circumstances.
It may seem to be a bit hyper-critical to say that Barker is 0 for 2 in 2020, but that is undoubtedly how I feel. Sergio was hit and miss at best, a failing attempt to inject drama into a story that was perfectly at home in the documentary format. And The Longest War feels like a film that does not have the time and space to adequately cover and delve into its subject matter. Perhaps it should have cut out the summation of Afghan history entirely, trusting its audience to know the basic details. Then it would have had more time and space to be the kind of Afghan character portrait that it would have been better off as. As it is, Barker has made a 90 minute introductory lecture to recent Afghan history, with some personal observations from those more directly involved jumbled in. For those looking for that kind of easy introduction, this is recommended, even strongly recommended. For everyone else, this can be missed.
(All images are copyright of Showtime)