December 9th, 2022




The designation of filmmaker or journalist is a blurry line for some documentary filmmakers. One of them is Matthew Heineman, the director behind films such as The Boy From Medellin, First Wave, Cartel Land, and City of Ghosts. His recent film Retrograde captures the United States evacuation from Afghanistan, a process that was by all accounts a long time coming, what was declared as the forever war, and in the end of 2021 President Joe Biden had gone forward with the decision made by his predecessor to remove all troops from the war zone. What Heineman and his team ultimately would capture is the downfall of everything the American government had worked for in a blink of an eye, where the Taliban would eventually gain control of Afghanistan, and the never ending war would end with a whimper of shame. Retrograde captures all of that, but it’s so much more, in this breathtaking documentary that submerges the audience into a situation without an answer.

With the opening shot Heineman and his crew make an impact of just how serious the situation is. People are everywhere, trying to enter through immigration ports, with military people surrounding, checking passports, and holding guns. Bullets soon fire through the air, as the security has lost all control, and the madness ensues. What follows is a flashback to the beginning of the end, meeting with the Green Beret team that has worked side-by-side with Afghanistan General Sami Sadat. They have trained together, prepared together, battled with the Taliban for over twenty-years and then they get the word from the pentagon that all U.S. troops are to evacuate the area. It’s like a band-aid, ripped off without time or preparation, and in no reality could it go smoothly. The question lingers on the faces of the men and women that fought: what was it all for?

From the narrative standpoint, Heineman has a history of taking a fly-on-the-wall approach to his filmmaking. In terms of relation, Retrograde feels closer to his Oscar-nominated doc Cartel Land, where his camerawork places us right in the center. The preparation of evacuation is visually depressing. Loads of documents thrown into bonfires, printers and copy machines destroyed. There are enough weapons and ammo to see our tax dollars spiral down a drain- or in this case- go up in flames. The job of protecting the Government of Afghanistan is left in the hands of Sadat and in a rapid amount of time Heineman captures it falling apart. People clawing and crawling, passing their children into the hands of soldiers, all with hopes to evacuate to a country with stability. It’s too much for any capabilities and instead of Heineman judging one person, party, or reason, he instead just asks us to observe the reality of this horrific state of affairs.

One of the interesting and brilliant inflection points that Heineman makes is beginning the story with four quotes from the last four presidents. It’s an example of how the war in Afghanistan was not just a party problem- but an American problem- which could be discussed about how knee-jerk reactions and the big war machine implemented by George W. Bush’s administration was the foundation of what was always a part of our country. After Afghanistan has fallen we see the heads of the Taliban meeting, using the moment to demonize the United States military, and supplant themselves in power.

What lasts from Retrograde are images and people impacted by the flaws of man. Matthew Heineman is undoubtedly one of our greatest documentary filmmakers today because his filmmaking is genuinely important. His work forces us to step outside of our comfort zones. We see massive piles of people climbing on one another. There is desperation of Samir Sadat and fear of being executed by his own people. We see the tears that stream from the faces of displaced people and must ask ourselves how we sleep at night in a world so cold. War is a boulder in a river, creating ripples that impact generations to come. Retrograde is an emotional and breathtaking documentary. What is captured is bleak and that is the raw power of groundbreaking cinema.



Written by: Leo Brady

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