It’s been only 2½ months since the last U.S. soldier left Afghanistan after a grueling two-decade war. Yet, perhaps sensing an opportunity to profit from the global attention garnered by the U.S. military’s withdrawal, Universal Pictures has reportedly already launched a cinematic retelling of American heroics during the evacuation.
Hollywood tropes routinely brush over American crimes and focus on U.S. soldiers acting as saviors in the Middle East.
Deadline bills it as “a ripped from the headlines fact-based drama about the Afghanistan evacuation.” But those same headlines report that there’s an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country. Preying on real-life tragedies for entertainment is morally reprehensible, especially when, as in this case, the wounds are still fresh. (Universal Pictures is a division of Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal and NBC News.)
It would have been unfathomable to create a film depicting the horrors of 9/11 in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It took five years for Oliver Stone to create “World Trade Center,” portraying the heroism of New York’s first responders. “Four Lions,” a satirical telling of terrorists targeting London released in 2010 — five years after London’s own 7/7 — still received criticism from the family of victims of the terrorist attacks.
This new venture is an especially painful case of historical whiplash given the time it normally takes for a film to be greenlit and for blockbuster actors like Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy, both of whom have been cast, to be lined up. From my experience working in film production as a producer and director, just conducting enough research to develop a well-structured film proposal for a topic as nuanced as this takes months, let alone getting a story optioned by the screenwriter, creating a budget and negotiating with actors and their agents for the roles.
The speed of the project’s studio backing suggests these nuances have been missed. Particularly since, in true Hollywood fashion, the film — penned by George Nolfi, a co-writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum” — is set to make American military troops the heroes of the movie. The narrative plans to follow three former U.S. special forces soldiers who return to Kabul amid the chaos of the withdrawal to save stranded allies and Afghan families.
But centering the story on U.S. forces, like much of the media coverage at the time, negates the Afghan experience. Furthermore, if anyone was a hero in this story, it certainly wasn’t the retreating U.S. military. Afghanistan has been rocked by regular bombings targeting civilians (as recently as Monday), oppression against women and a return to sectarianism. So it’s easy to understand why so many Afghans desperately tried to flee the country in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal; some Afghans even clung on to U.S. military planes as they took off from Kabul, leaving some to fall to their demise. It was this ill-prepared and reckless withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. troops that makes Afghans vulnerable today.
In World War II, Hollywood functioned as an official propaganda arm of the U.S. military when the U.S. Office of War Information developed a Bureau of Motion Pictures to review movie scripts for anything that appeared critical of the U.S. Although a less formal relationship exists today, the legacy of historical revisions of American military feats continues.
Some of the movies about the U.S. invasion of Iraq have been particularly egregious. For many, the horrors conducted by U.S. forces in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison epitomize the crimes of the Iraq War. The images of Iraqis forced naked into human pyramids, simulating sex as American soldiers smile on, is forever etched into our memories. But instead of focusing on the struggles of innocent Iraqi torture victims, Rebel One Pictures created “Boys of Abu Ghraib.” The film tells the fictional story of an American soldier trying to help an Iraqi prisoner, only to later be betrayed when the captive turns out to be the terrorist he denied being, distastefully putting into question whether the Iraqis deserved such treatment.
Indeed, Hollywood tropes routinely brush over American crimes and focus on U.S. soldiers acting as saviors in the Middle East, from Paul Greengrass’ “Green Zone” to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker.” The most toxic and distinctly racist is Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” The story presents real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as a hero protecting the world from dangerous Iraqis. In reality, Kyle described killing 255 Iraqis as being “fun”; the cinematic retelling tracked with a rise in anti-Muslim hate in the U.S.
The choice to focus on the American soldiers in the as-yet-unnamed Afghanistan withdrawal film is in keeping with the sidelining of Muslims in favor of white protagonists. Another fresh example is the recently leaked script for “They Are Us,” a retelling of the 2019 Christchurch massacre that killed 51 Muslims in New Zealand. Told through the lens of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and celebrating her response to the attack, the leaked script implied that a Muslim-focused narrative wasn’t compelling enough of a plot. In light of backlash from New Zealand’s Muslim community, pre-production for the movie has been suspended.
Although we have yet to see the script for Universal’s Afghanistan withdrawal picture, we do know that it comes as Afghans continue to suffer today. If this insensitively timed show must go on, it should at least have a storyline that accurately depicts their hardship instead of recasting America as the hero.