Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde: National Geographic Documentary Films, 2022.
Reviewed by Roger Marheine
January 3, 2023
“All films are fictions, equally reliable—that is, not reliable at all, becoming fabrications expressive of our wishes and desires and reflecting not reality but our self-interest” Carl Platinga 
War documentaries can provide viewers with compelling footage of actual persons in dire circumstances, and can be exceptionally useful forms of information, but they can also distort and deny fundamental truths. Cinematic texts without context can mislead by providing provocative details that undermine more significant truths. Retrograde is just such a film. 
While Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde fails at so many levels, its particular errors are worth a closer look to grasp current imperialist cultural devices.
Heineman’s Retrograde was released in public theaters on Veterans Day (November 11, 2022), thus paying a vague tribute to U.S. military veterans. It depicts the last days of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Heineman begins and ends his film with gut-wrenching footage, showing thousands of desperate Afghans at Kabul’s airport, attempting to leave their country in the withdrawal’s wake. Not unlike the horrors suffered by the Vietnamese at the end of that war, the Afghan debacle left the country in ruins and its people devastated.  Though his images are poignant, Heineman’s film fails to address the war’s causes, or that the U.S. withdrawal was due to imperialism’s fundamental defeat.
“Retrograde” in the military lexicon means to abandon a space and destroy all that could be of use to the victorious enemy. The film depicts the departing American Green Berets (“trainers and advisors”) detonating shells and destroying weapons, smashing electronic devices to pieces, and burning maps and military papers. Heineman might have commented upon the irony of obliterating all support materiel that could have been used by the Afghan army, who in theory would carry on the fight.
That army lasted less than a month, a false flag of resistance if there ever was one.
Sentimental scenes depict the departing Green Berets hugging their Afghan allies, and declaring that the decision to leave is not theirs, but rather made by higher ups. By privileging the views of Green Beret Special Ops personnel and those of Sami Sadat, a strangely obtuse Afghan general, Heinemann condemns the U.S. military withdrawal itself—an absurd imperialist conceit.
In an interview in Task and Purpose (a military support blog), Heineman concedes his original goal: “I wanted to do this 360 look to be embedded (italics added) within the Green Beret unit’s intimate moments.” 
Heineman sought to emulate filmmakers such as Sebastian Junger and Carol Dysinger, whose embedded documentaries feature poignant first-hand images, but all in the service imperialist propaganda.  Embedded filmmakers portray a micro realism that encourages viewers to empathize with individual combat troops, their daily details ranging from danger to tedium to shock and awe. Retrograde exemplifies what Roger Stahl has called “Militainment” in which “getting personal” actually depoliticizes imperialist war.  What’s carefully masked and never asked is why these units are in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, surrounded by hostile forces who don’t want them there in the first place.
However, the Covid pandemic threw Heineman a curve, and by the time he actually arrived in Afghanistan, the U.S. was withdrawing. He could no longer produce enough footage of “heroic” U.S. soldiers in the manner of Junger or Dysinger. His camera was good to go, but he had no heroes to worship.
Subsequently, Heineman selected General Sami Sadat, a cherub faced Afghan military leader of little consequence, except his dedication to carrying on the fight. Is Sadat a zealot, an imperialist dupe, or simply a crass opportunist who gets to have a movie made about him? Heineman hardly cares—he’s making a combat documentary.
Trained in London, Sadat speaks perfect English and allows Heineman’s camera to trace his every move. The viewer does all but tuck him into bed at night. We witness him praying, shaving and washing up, conducting staff meetings, encouraging the injured and new recruits alike to keep the faith, receiving increasingly dire intelligence that the cause is lost, and marching into shell-shocked war zones, standing tall against a barrage of bullets. While the general smokes cigars and delivers platitudes, we follow him to the war’s disastrous conclusion in which the Taliban take power.
Sadat recklessly soldiers on, the casualties mount, and his cause is obviously lost. It’s sickening when members of his staff ask at what cost they should continue. One says they could lose 200 lives if they don’t carry on the fight, but if they continue fighting, they will lose 2000. Heineman might have elaborated on these assessments, but his primary focus is on battle footage–real combat, bullets and bravado. Without those cinematic elements, he has no film.
Ultimately, General Sadat must capitulate and concede defeat. He is the poster boy for American imperialist complicity, until he isn’t. The film’s endgame emphasizes Sadat’s sense of American and Afghan betrayal. He laments, “Many of us fought valiantly and honorably, only to be let down by American and Afghan leadership.” Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, the U.S. puppet, has left the country and left Sadat in charge of the armed forces. You would think that Sadat would have a clue that the jig is up. Still, the camera is rolling and Sadat is the star—a mock hero now on a doomed mission.
The originally stated goal of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was to capture Osama bin Laden. That task was completed during the Obama regime (2011). A second pretense was to rescue the Afghan people from the Taliban—a version of “humanitarian intervention” propaganda.
Heineman employs a narrative device seen in fictional films by Steven Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone which redefined the purpose of war as a fight to save our own soldiers. The “rescue film” such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) exemplifies liberal versions of this rhetorical pose. More conservative filmmakers promoted the abandonment theory in the Rambo franchise, emphasizing politicians betrayed U.S. MIAs and POWs in Vietnam by sabotaging the war effort. 
The film ends anti-climactically, with Sadat in London, his attempt to seek exile in the United States having been denied. He declares that he is raising funds to return and liberate Afghanistan. Coupled with the horrific scenes of thousands fleeing at Kabul Airport, Heineman emphasizes that U.S. military withdrawal is the cause of so much suffering.
Heineman got his war footage–battle scenes and images of the incredibly tragic suffering of Afghans. He’s a swashbuckler aesthetically, uncompromisingly daring, but his buccaneer film making is akin to visual pornography. He cashes in on the suffering of the Afghan people, and depicts Afghan soldiers fighting a war they will lose while lionizing his general, a military opportunist who was more than willing to fulfill the imperialist mission.
- See Carl Platinga, “’I’ll Believe it When I Trust the Source’: Documentary Images and Visual Evidence.” In The Documentary Film Book, By Brian Winston, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 41.
- See Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning.” In Theorizing Documentary, Michael Renov. New York. Routledge. 1993. 94. Trinh argues that in assessing a documentary, a distinction must be made regarding images as either “honest” or “manipulative.”
- See Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and note also Carol Dysinger’s Camp Victory, Afghanistan (2010). Films by Junger, Dysinger and others focus on the minutiae of combat soldiers and marines, yet fail to provide broader analysis and are little more than imperialist war propaganda. While documentaries, their films follow the formula of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ Band of Brothers (2001). Based on the 1992 non-fiction text by Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers established the primary cliched themes of this subgenre—that war is hell, U.S. humanitarian savior missions must be carried out, and the result is brotherhood of the heroic combatants. The phrase “band of brothers” originates in William Shakespear’s Henry V, a play that celebrates England’s nationalistic wars.
- See Roger Stahl. Militainment, Inc. War, Media and Popular Culture. Routledge, 2010. 42.
- See Tatiana Prorokova’s Docu-Fictions of War: S. Interventionism in Film and Literature. Univ. of Nebraska Pr. 2019, (184-185). Prorokova notes that Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III entailed a preposterous plot involving Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) as a single operative in Afghanistan on a mission to save his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna). To do so, Rambo joined with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, and they deployed in a search and rescue operation. In one of the most preposterous scenes in the history of war cinema, Rambo brings down a Soviet attack helicopter with an exploding arrow. The fact that Stallone’s Rambo allies with the Mujahideen, which included leaders like Osama bin Laden elevates irony to the level of farce.
EDITORS NOTE: the documentary “Retrograde” reviewed above is streaming on Disney+.
-Roger Marheine is a veteran of the U.S. Army, and has been a Marxist since the Vietnam War. His interests include War Culture and the permeation of imperialism’s influence in film (both narrative and documentary) and literature (fiction and memoir.) He welcomes all correspondence and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.