But Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose script credits include “Dark Waters,” “World War Z,” and “21 Bridges,” avoids such white-savior tropes with his directorial debut, based on true events, about the Nineveh SWAT team in Mosul, Iraq. Pairing a refusal to extend any sympathy to the Islamic State with thoughtful, if somewhat underdeveloped, commentary about Iraq’s history and relationships with the United States, neighboring Iran, and onetime foe Kuwait, “Mosul” feels grounded in a tangible sense of place and time. Although the film sometimes relies on formulaic imagery to make plain the evils of the Islamic State (orphaned children, impregnated women), it makes up for that predictability with a gripping lead performance from Iraqi actor Suhail Dabbach. As the SWAT team leader Major Jasem, Dabbach is a steely-eyed patriarch, a man who believably switches between killing Islamic State fighters, urging his “sons” and comrades to drink water during their mission, and befriending a young boy they see wandering along a dirt road. Dabbach is the heart and soul of “Mosul,” making real the unbelievable loss Iraqis have suffered after decades of war and destruction—and the sliver of hope they still hold onto for a better life.
“Mosul” is set in the same-named city in northern Iraq, which used to be a thriving metropolis with a population of nearly 2 million. Located on the Tigris River, Mosul is near Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city that used to be the jewel of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in Upper Mesopotamia. After the post-Sept. 11, 2001, U.S.-led invasion of Iraq destabilized the country, the Islamic State’s presence in and control of various Iraqi cities exacerbated. In 2014, the terrorist group (which certain Middle Easterners call the pejorative “Daesh”) began creeping into the city, and when “Mosul” begins in present day, their destructive impact is clear. Establishing drone shots make clear the widespread devastation—collapsed buildings, burning cars, abandoned neighborhoods—while intertitles explain that one of the only factions feared by Daesh fighters is the Nineveh SWAT team. Made up of police officers from Mosul, who use their first-hand knowledge of the city to their advantage, the Nineveh SWAT team members are infamous for their toughness. None of them has ever switched sides and joined Daesh to save themselves, and none of them has ever been taken prisoner.
There are still good people in the city trying to defend it, and “Mosul” begins during a shootout between three Iraqi police officers and a tide of Daesh fighters. Although the Islamic State seems to be on their way out of Mosul, their dealings—trading drugs for guns, stealing cash from citizens who remain, and kidnapping and raping women—still make them criminals, and young police officer Kawa (Bessa), his uncle, and another officer are attempting to make arrests. They’re severely outmanned until Major Jasem and his men show up in Humvees decorated with a modified skull-and-crossbones logo, loaded up with guns and daggers and grenades, sporting keffiyehs and body armor. They have a strict code, checking people’s names against a gigantic list they carry to double check whether the individual is affiliated with the Islamic State, and they pick dead fighters’ pockets for cash, and they add any abandoned weapons to their own cache. Their goal is to kill any Daesh they see and reclaim the city they love, and there’s no room within that ideology for mercy.