‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ Is A Surprisingly Good War Film


I was a bit surprised at Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant in that it was not one of the director’s usual wisecrack gangster films, but a serious and very good look at people who take honor seriously. It is a bit uneven; there are a couple of slow spots when your attention wanders, but they are more than balanced by a few similarly slow spots when you can barely breathe. This is the kind of movie that Hollywood studios used to make. Men can be heroes, and they keep their word no matter the cost.

Most of the film takes place in Afghanistan. Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads a hunter/killer team out to destroy Taliban bases far out in the country. Their translator gets killed, but a local man, Ahmed (Dar Salim), volunteers to take over. Although not initially trusted by the American soldiers, Ahmed has a good reason for wanting to help. The American government had promised to provide visas for those Afghans who helped our troops and their families to keep them safe from the Taliban.

Right from the beginning, Ahmed goes further than most. He warns the Americans that they are being betrayed and leads them past a trap. He tells Kinley that he is not a translator but an interpreter. He understands the special tricks that might be used against them. And in a harrowing series of episodes, he saves Kinley’s life at great risk to his own. The scenes of the two men hiding from the Taliban operatives are superb, a highlight of the film. I felt my own heart beating throughout, even though I knew that the two men would survive.

Then Kinley is sent home, where he faces PTSD and other problems, driving his wife Caroline (Emily Beecham) half crazy. But then he finds out that the American government, as they decide to decamp, has broken its promise to the Afghans who risked their lives.

Kinley returns to Afghanistan and works with Ahmed to bring him and his family out, going through a series of nasty battles (where Ritchie returns to his old methods of quick reaction shots) to get him out. While the American government ignored its promises, Kinley was part of a group that looked on the agreement as a covenant, an agreement that matters. One could say, metaphorically, written in blood.

Is this a true story? Partially. It is based on a whole series of rescues done like this, rather than a single operation. The American government, unfortunately, has not stood by its promises, but there are people who have. Heroes, not only Americans, but also Afghans, and people of honor from other countries who helped.

Gyllenhaal was excellent as the troubled though heroic Kinley. He was definitely an old-fashioned type. He went out taking horrible chances almost daily, doing it because he believed in this country. We can see him expanding his idea of brotherhood among warriors to include Ahmed. We can feel for him as he struggles with civilian life afterward and then wonder as he returns to the extremely dangerous battlefield. He’s a modern-day Gary Cooper from High Noon.

Although we do not get all that much from the other soldiers, they present the usual somewhat wise guy while heroic look.

But it is Dar Salim who dominates the film. The actor is so strong while also nuanced, that in many ways he becomes the center. His motivations are incredibly complex. We can admire him and worry when we find out that our country has betrayed him. Throughout, he keeps his dignity.

One of the most striking contrasts comes from the two men’s wives. Beecham portrays a strong woman, one running a family business even while worrying about the fate of her husband. Basira (Fariba Sheikhan), Ahmed’s wife, is destitute, struggling to keep her family fed. The contrast, though not direct, is chilling.

This is a strong movie that focuses on a part of the American record many would prefer to ignore and then forget. We expect our political leaders of all parties to lie to us (if you don’t believe me, well, there’s a really nice bridge going to Brooklyn I can sell you cheap) but seldom so openly and with such fatal consequences.

As a film, it is not brilliant, but it is very strong and quite good. I recommend it.