dir: Guy Ritchie
I have no idea why this is called Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, because I don’t think anyone was too confused about whose covenant it is. If Guy Ritchie directed it, and we are reliably informed that he did, then we would have assumed it was his flick called The Covenant.
But isn’t it really The Covenant between the two main characters here? The sacred promise Jake Gyllenhaal’s character makes to Ahmed, his faithful interpreter? The promise to save Ahmed and his family? Guy Ritchie didn’t make this promise to this Afghani interpreter. So why the fuck is it his covenant anyway?
Is it God’s covenant with Abraham, or that with Noah after the Flood, that he wouldn’t slaughter humanity again just for shits and giggles, or the one he made with Jesus that everything would be fine if he just went down to Earth and was a good boy?
Hmm, someone doesn’t seem to honour his covenants…
Of these bullshit semantic games, I never tire of them. Whoever the fuck’s The Covenant it is, this here is a film, that came out this year, set mostly in Afghanistan, to do with men and the promises they make to other men, and the lengths they’ll go to not break their promises.
It's beyond me why Guy Ritchie thought he needed to tell this particular story, but, unlike many of his more recent films, I don’t feel ripped off in having sat through it. At least it’s not just another smug gangster flick set in London amongst the stereotypes with constant flashbacks, at that. He wants to be taken ever so seriously. You can feel it wafting off of the screen. “This is my important film”, he tells himself and his assistant. “This will earn me the respect I deserve.”
“Yes sir, Mr Ritchie, here’s your everything bagel, just as you ordered, with nothing on it”, says the assistant.
Also, at no point in the first hour and ten minutes did Gyllenhall’s character promise Ahmed that he was going to get him and his family out in exchange for Ahmed saving his life from the loathsome Taliban. That’s the whole premise of the film, the dynamic that fuels its second hour. And yet…
I think it’s more about the promise of a visa out of Afghanistan for the people and their families who helped the US military as translators / interpreters. A general, non-binding kind of pseudo-promise.
You know, the one made to all the people who the Americans left behind when the Taliban took over again just a few years ago. Left to die. And they all died, or are waiting to die. None of them got out, whether Jake Gyllenhaal was involved or not.
But if you could get one guy out, surely it would be trusty Ahmed? And his lovely wife and son, who haven’t done anything wrong to anyone?
Another “funny” element, is that Gyllenhaal’s character can’t stand Ahmed (before shit goes down), and he’s unconscious during 99% of the time where Ahmed is keeping him safe. There’s never a point where the two get to know or like each other. This isn’t even about friendship, or vaguely liking another human being (especially not another guy, eww, gross).
It’s not even about two people from completely different worlds begrudgingly coming to accept that they have more in common than not, and seeing the humanity they share in common.
Sergeant John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) has a squad (of American soldiers that he actually likes) with whom he goes out and tries to find places where the Taliban are constructing improvised explosive devices and suicide vests. This is obviously set some time between when the Americans invaded Afghanistan and when the Americans left Afghanistan, which was in 2021. Both before, during and after, the Taliban are in power, killing people all over the place, driving around in Toyota Hiluxes.
There’s no doubt that they are deeply awful and shitty people, like, no doubt. I am sure one or two of them, on days when they’re not torturing or killing men, women and children, sometimes have a stray thought like “Are we the bad guys?”, but then they shake their heads and go back to whatever awful shit they’re doing.
The US Military, as personified by Gyllenhaal’s character, also doesn’t ever wonder as to whether walking around harassing people while holding weapons is a bad idea, but ours is not to reason why, ours is just to kill and die.
In order for the good sergeant to do his job, he needs a translator to help him. Enter Ahmed (Dar Salim), a cool and calm chap that can speak all the relevant languages, and knows grammar better than the sergeant, which is the first things about him that the master sergeant finds irritating.
There are plenty of other things to dislike about him as well. He corrects him, knows the area and the players really well, and sniffs out dangers the soldiers have no idea about. He also doesn’t kowtow or simper for approval or attention. And he is hated even more by the other Afghanis, who see him as a despicable traitor. Sure, the Taliban abuse everyone, and slaughter our children, but you, you’re a collaborator, lower than pig shit. You’re the Worst!
So, distrusted by Americans, hated by his countrymen, whether they support the Taliban or not, Ahmed walks a treacherous path, somehow hoping that if he keeps the Americans safe, it will somehow result in him and his family getting the fuck out of this hellhole.
Does anyone ever promise to him during the flick’s running time that they will get him out in the end? No, but I guess we’re meant to infer that it was a promise that was probably dangled in front of many of the locals who helped out the allied forces, especially the translators.
I mean, you don’t really consider their importance, because in a lot of cases you imagine US forces yelling at people, and then yelling louder when people don’t understand as a possible solution, but in theory a person who could speak to the locals and translate back could be of some help in reaching some level of understanding.
There is really, at least to my eye, no sugar-coating of what the soldiers are like in Afghanistan. They don’t want to be there, they don’t really believe in what they’re doing, they don’t see much of a difference between the locals who help them or the locals that hate them. If they have a job at all they’ll do it and if it pisses off the locals they don’t care.
Ahmed cares because he wants to live. He wants to protect the Americans (from themselves, much of the time) for his own purposes, having already lost one son to the Taliban. He navigates keeping the locals onside (who hate him, anyway) with calm mollification or bribes as the case may require.
And it’s not portrayed as heroism or some greater good mentality – he doesn’t like the Americans either, but knows the Taliban are worse. And it’s just calm motivated self-interest in the face of that.
So when, on a mission where the Americans think they’ve struck the jackpot, everything goes South, the good sergeant is shot multiple times, and the only thing standing between him and the Taliban is Ahmed’s absolute determination to get him back to a base, several days away on foot.
The lengths Ahmed has to go to are almost comical, as in, Sisyphus would watch that sequence and laugh at just how difficult it all is, and just how much Ahmed has to suffer through in order to save a jerk he doesn’t even like who hasn’t promised him anything.
It’s absurd. To the movie’s credit, we know it’s purest fiction, so there’s no aspect of “based on a true story” tainting our potential enjoyment. We are free to laugh or cringe at how much they both suffer. I have no doubt there are a whole host of true stories of valiant heroism and self-sacrifice arising from the twenty year occupation of parts of Afghanistan. This is not one of them.
If / when the good sergeant survives, and is shipped back to the States, you’d think he’d be grateful that he survived, or that he has a redhead for a wife and two lovely kids.
Instead, it burns him up inside. The fact that he survived, and wasn’t able to get Ahmed and his family out (in order to make them square on the complex moral playing field that this strange treatise on masculinity seems to encompass), is driving him fucking insane. Where other veterans came back from the conflict with PTSD or severe injuries or disabilities to live with, the good sergeant burns with indignation that he owes a debt to a man half a world away.
And this will not stand. He will not live if he cannot resolve this. It’s that fucking grim a scenario.
I almost could not believe that this was where the flick was going. But it really is as clench-jawed and constipated-sounding as what I saw.
The return to Afghanistan to save Ahmed is inevitable, but it can’t be done officially or through proper channels, and that they conjure up a scenario where it could happen at all is somewhat absurd (with the help of a mercenary played by Antony Starr, for once not playing a psychopath but, eh, he is a military contractor so…)
It’s all well enough done, don’t get me wrong. As implausible as it seemed at times, the actors grimly dedicate themselves to this grim telling of a tale as old as time itself, of what men understand without speaking, without having to express themselves, of a whole conversation that can be had, an entire world of meaning that can come from burning eye contact and a slow nod of the head.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Actually, what I mean is, it’s unintentionally hilarious because it’s so fucking serious. The stuff that Guy Ritchie has been trying to say about the nature of men (as opposed to the Nature of Man), in his last two ‘why so serious?’ movies, being this one and the appropriately named Wrath of Man, there are reams and reams of material for a psychoanalyst to wrestle with, but instead of getting therapy, people keep giving him money to make movies instead.
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant is a strange, compelling, militaristic male-centric fantasy that says way more than I think it intends to, but, hey, even if you’re shaking your head side-to-side while watching it, it’s still educational.
7 times there’s positive masculinity, toxic masculinity and then whatever the fuck Guy Ritchie’s idea of masculinity is out of 10.
“It has a hook in me, one that you cannot see, but it is there!” – um okay dude but I don’t remember asking - Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant