‘The Covenant’ Review
Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic disrupting movie cycles, or maybe it’s a function of the various dramas surrounding studios STX and MGM, or possibly audiences are just stuck on thinking of him as the Brit-gangster director. But I don’t think we really appreciate the versatility of director Guy Ritchie as demonstrated in his recent, excellent run.
Over the last four years, Ritchie has tackled four distinct genres and absolutely crushed all of them. First, The Gentlemen was something of a return to form for Ritchie after years in the big-budget stratosphere, a more modest, twisty, turny action-comedy in the mold of Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Then he delivered what might be his late-period masterpiece, Wrath of Man, a darkly violent 1970s-style thriller, something like a mainstream S. Craig Zahler (Dragged Across Concrete) flick. Wrath was, compared to Ritchie’s other work, almost staid: The camera lingered on moments of brutality and the proceedings were bereft of his usual lighthearted touch.
The laughs were back in Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. Released last month to sadly little fanfare, Operation Fortune is a bit like a Bond-esque action-comedy: not quite spoof, but not quite serious either.
And that brings us to The Covenant, which is a rather straightforward war film, a deadly serious—and almost deadly earnest, in its portrait of duty, honor, and sacrifice—look at America’s failure to live up to its word to the interpreters on the ground in Afghanistan.
Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) needs a new interpreter after his was blown up while Kinley’s squad was running a checkpoint. This opening scene sets the stage immediately and intimately: We see the risks, we see how his unit operates, we see the Afghan population’s distrust of the military and the locals who aid them, and we see how quickly a situation can turn bad. This opening scene is representative of the remarkable efficiency of the script from Ritchie and his frequent collaborators Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies; every sequence delivers information, every scene moves us forward.
Kinley chooses Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim) as his unit’s new interpreter, and we quickly see that Ahmed is both strong-headed, as when he distributes more cash than is allowed to sources, and correct in his insubordination, as when he breaks the nose of a fellow interpreter who has led them into an ambush. The bond that develops between Kinley and Ahmed is one of mutual respect; it hardens into something unbreakable when Ahmed carries Kinley 100 clicks back to Bagram after Kinley is wounded in an attack.
Importantly, Ritchie takes his time to allow that bond—and, crucially, that debt that Kinley owes Ahmed—to develop naturally and over time. The way this movie has been sold to audiences is as something like “a soldier returns to Afghanistan to save the interpreter who saved him,” and that’s not wrong, exactly, but Kinley’s actual on-the-ground time back in Afghanistan amounts to the last 25 minutes or so of the movie. We spend as much time with Ahmed hiking Kinley through the mountains on a travois, dodging Taliban fighters as best he can, killing them when he can’t dodge them.
As such, we feel Kinley’s debt to Ahmed as directly as he does. The days, then weeks, then months of agonizing frustration as Kinley deals with USCIS bureaucracy in an effort to get the translator, now at the top of the Taliban’s kill list, out of country are just as infuriating to us as they are to Kinley. When Gyllenhaal monologues about the hook within him—the pain in his chest that will not allow him to sleep; the helplessness he feels at being unable to help the man who saved his life and brought him back to his family—we buy it because we saw how the hook got there.
Aiding in that sensation is Christopher Benstead’s tremendous score, all deep strings and pulsing bass. I’m not a music guy so I won’t endeavor to break down what Benstead is doing with the cello and the double bass here; suffice it to say that one of the most important elements of Guy Ritchie’s recent run is his teaming up with Benstead, who has worked on The Gentlemen, Wrath of Man, Operation Fortune, and The Covenant. His sound is distinctive, propulsive, and ominous, and the scores give all these pictures heft.
Though not a true story, The Covenant tells an important—and, frankly, shameful—story about America’s efforts in Afghanistan, and in particular about our unwillingness to help those who risked their own lives and the lives of their families to aid the United States during the invasion. Will Selber has written at agonizing length about this issue and the lengths troops have had to go to to save their allies.
In telling a story about an interpreter who is saved and relegating the fate of the hundreds—possibly thousands—of allies left to hide from, and die horribly at the hands of, the Taliban to a title card at film’s end, The Covenant feels a bit like Rambo: First Blood, Part II, a movie that reimagined Vietnam by asking “Do we get to win this time?” I don’t mind that reframing, exactly, but it does call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s critique of Schindler’s List as fundamentally dishonest in the sense that it’s about a couple of hundred people who lived when the Holocaust’s true story is about the millions who died.
This is not the fault of the movie, of course, and I admire the almost naked military propaganda at the heart of The Covenant: There’s a fist-pumping moment late in the film when “United States Air Force” is proudly and prominently displayed on the side of a conveyance delivering what can only be described as cosmic justice to people who richly deserve it. But it is worth keeping in mind that the story of Kinley and Ahmed is the exception, not the rule. And the rule is a horrifying stain on the American conscience.