It’s been just over 18 months since the evacuation of Kabul heralded the end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan. That time has been marked by remembrance — from some of the first soldiers who jumped into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to those who helped evacuate thousands of civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021. And with the passage of time, that final chaotic event, the evacuation and its ongoing aftermath, has become fodder for movie magic. 

There are now three films in production or set to be released soon that revolve around the idea of U.S. service members on a mission to rescue the interpreters and other Afghans who served alongside them, often at great personal risk. 

Not even three months after the Kabul evacuation, Universal Pictures greenlit a film about former Army Special Forces soldiers returning to Afghanistan to help evacuate some of their former compatriots and family members. Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy have already been cast to star in that one. Then there’s Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant which follows a Special Forces soldier played by Jake Gyllenhaal who returns to Afghanistan to rescue the interpreter who once saved his life. And finally, Kandahar, starring Gerard Butler and debuting in May, seems to be set a few years prior to the Kabul evacuation but follows a similar theme of one American going above and beyond to save a civilian from the chaos and violence of Afghanistan. 

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All of these movies, and three are enough to suggest a bit of a trend forming, have a similar theme: Special operations personnel — or, given the prevalence of beards and gear in the promotional material, people who seem like they’re some kind of SOF — return for one last mission in Afghanistan to help the people who helped them. To set right something that still seems very, very wrong.

Since it began in 2001, the Global War on Terror, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Africa and points in between, has played out on screens, both small and large. There was 24-hour news coverage of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and even today you can relive 1st Armored Division soldiers blasting Tupac in an M1 Abrams tank on TikTok circa 2003. Combat footage became a staple of a war that coincided with the era of “pics or it didn’t happen.” 

When Hollywood first caught on to what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first theme was, basically, shit is fucked up but “the troops” are, by and large, good. Think something like In The Valley of Elah, Redacted or Stop Loss. By the end of the 2000s, the image of “the operator” began to make its way into the mainstream. The hair, the kit, the implied rebellion against bureaucratic B.S. and the implication that such rules and regulations only served to slow down the guys who got shit done.  These were the troops that were actually fighting the war, or so the message seemed to be on screen. Whether it was an explosive ordnance disposal tech in The Hurt Locker or an intelligence warrant officer in Green Zone or a bonafide operator in American Sniper or Lone Survivor, there were a few good men out there just doing the best they could in a messed up world.

As Iraq ended and Afghanistan entered its second decade, perhaps the passage of time also allowed a more snarky, cynical take to flourish. War Machine or Whisky Tango Foxtrot offered a kind of meta-commentary on how, yes, the whole Iraq and Afghanistan thing seems extremely messed up. Something like Cherry — adapted from the memoir of a combat medic who was later arrested for armed robbery and drug use — presented a kind of unvarnished, albeit extreme look at what life as a service member and a veteran could look like. A lot of this may have been disagreeable and was certainly a far cry from the early days of patriotic onscreen displays that signaled the start of the GWOT era, but it seems, in hindsight, a fitting reflection of the times. 

Now, with the war that began the era of GWOT over — although there are still thousands of troops deployed around the world and the monthly airstrikes in Africa — the next step in the genre seems to be solving the plight of thousands of Afghans left behind who grew up under the auspices of an American-backed government. And, if possible, pulling off something heroic in the process that might just balance out the bitter aftertaste of the war’s end.

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