‘Hyena Road’ Brings Grinding Complexity Of Ground Combat In Afghanistan To The Screen

Screenshot from 'Hyena Road' trailer.

Translating the experiences of those who served in the Global War on Terror onto film has yielded mixed results, with many movies focusing on Iraq. The few that do take place in Afghanistan often focus on famous battles or special operations missions. However, the Canadian war drama “Hyena Road” aims to take a more fundamental look at the ground war in Afghanistan. Though the film’s take on asymmetric conflict stumbles along the way, it’s still worth seeing.

Directed and starring Paul Gross, who plays Capt. Pete Mitchell, the film was released in October 2015 and is set in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province. The road that lends its name to film is being constructed to allow Canadian forces to move troops and tanks to support isolated outposts against the Taliban. Canadian forces are working to finish the project with a local strongman, dubbed “BDK” and played by Fazal Hakimi, but the road is riddled with roadside bombs and the local construction crews are constantly targeted by the Taliban. Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, played by Rossif Sutherland, leads a sniper section in Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry stationed at Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar. During an overwatch mission on the road, Sanders and his team are ambushed by the Taliban. They encounter a village elder who shelters them from the pursuing Taliban under the tribal Afghan code of Pashtunwali. Mitchell, an intelligence officer working in the tactical operation center, hears about the engagement and deduces that the elder is “the Ghost,” played by Neamat Arghandabi, a legendary mujahideen leader who vanished after the Soviets left Afghanistan. He has resurfaced to confront BDK, who alternates between moonlighting for the CIA and the Taliban.

What works best in “Hyena Road” are the opposite philosophies of war espoused by the two main characters. Mitchell prefers a population-focused approach, working with a network of contacts and local leaders to hasten the road’s construction. Sanders, being a sniper, naturally prefers eliminating the enemy fighters planting improvised explosive devices and conducting ambushes along Hyena Road. What’s interesting is how the film inverts the typical archetypes war films ascribe to these kinds of characters.

Despite his commitment to the counterinsurgency mission, Mitchell has a cynical mindset and justifies playing various groups against each other in order to give the Afghans a fighting chance at a better existence before Coalition troops must leave. Alternatively, Sanders views his profession as black and white: Engage targets, protect non-combatants. He also genuinely believes what his team does is important. For Sanders, being in the right place to shoot the right person could change the course of the war. The film illustrates the shifting layers of complexity: BDK plays all sides because he is motivated by personal gain rather than any sort of ideological association with the Afghan government; Mitchell wants to partner with the Ghost to ensure Hyena’s construction; but the Ghost seems more interested in using the Canadians to get at BDK. The conflict between the two Afghans is elemental, a personal confrontation that makes the broader picture of a stable Afghanistan seem distant, almost irrelevant.  As Mitchell describes it: “It’s not one war, it’s a bunch of different wars.”      

“Hyena Road” builds this heated atmosphere with its presentation. Much of the movie is augmented with B-roll and establishing shots of real Canadian bases and soldiers. While a bit jarring, ultimately it allows the film to achieve effective visuals rivaling Hollywood fare like “Lone Survivor” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” with the modest budget of 12.5 million. Footage of the sprawling Kandahar Airfield and the city itself, along with scenes of real helicopters dodging tracer fire all help to sell the movie’s vision of the “Graveyard of Empires.” Mitchell even invokes that moniker for Afghanistan in his narration throughout the film, referencing the experiences of Alexander the Great, the first to get caught in Afghanistan’s trap: “Alexander’s mother wrote him and said: I understand now: in Afghanistan, even the dirt is hostile.”

Related: A Hollywood military advisor explains how veterans can break into show biz »

The film adds realism with authentic uniforms and equipment, and of course, a few shots of soldiers playing street hockey and lining up at the Kandahar Tim Hortons for a little Canadian flavor. It also portrays the war as a multi-partner effort with Mitchell coordinating with Afghan police and army personnel, as well as enlisting the aid of a U.S. Army signals intelligence unit in one key scene.

Unfortunately, “Hyena Road” stumbles in a few key ways. Mitchell’s sniper team gets little characterization beyond cool sniper guys, which is a shame given there are some interesting opportunities to differentiate the Canadian soldiers  And the single major female character is mired in the overused war movie trope of the officer-subordinate romance which feels overly forced in this particular story. A Canadian general has such histrionic dialogue in several scenes it became difficult to take him seriously.

In one scene, the general explains his mission to a group of Afghan officials by saying “I’m building a big fucking road, and it is going like a dagger into the heart of enemy, and it is fucking him up,”

Finally, the climax of the film fumbles, burying any reflection on the ambivalence of victory in Afghanistan in a sudden violent battle that just ushers in the ending without any real resolution. Despite these issues, “Hyena Road” is an admirable attempt to get at the more fundamental concepts at play in Afghanistan. For its efforts, it oftens feels more real than films attempting to recreate actual battles without any context.

“Hyena Road” may be the first of a more interrogative era of cinema about Iraq and Afghanistan, and for that it’s certainly worth a viewing.

Editor's Note: This article by Hope Hodge Seck originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

In the wake of a heartwarming viral video that was featured everywhere from Good Morning America to the Daily Mail comes a disheartening revelation: The 84-year-old self-described Army nurse cranking out push-ups in her crisp Vietnam-era uniform might not be who she said she was.

Maggie DeSanti, allegedly a retired Army lieutenant colonel who rappeled out of helicopters in Vietnam, was captured in a video challenging a TSA agent to a push-up competition ahead of a flight to Washington, D.C., with the Arizona chapter of the organization Honor Flight on Oct. 16. The video soon was everywhere, and many who shared it, including Honor Flight, hailed DeSanti's toughness and spirit.

Read More Show Less

The summer before sixth grade, Cindy Dawson went to an air show with her father and was enamored by the flight maneuvers the pilots performed.

"I just thought that would be the coolest thing that anybody could ever do," she said, especially having already heard stories about her grandfather flying bombers during World War II with the Army Air Corps.

So by the first day of school, she had already decided what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Read More Show Less
(ABC News)

Peach schnapps, sex on the beach, and piña colada may be familiar drinks to anyone who's spent an afternoon (or a whole day) getting plastered on an ocean-side boardwalk, but they're also specialty desserts at Ray's Boozy Cupcakes, Etc, a bakery in Voorhees, New Jersey run by a 93-year-old World War II veteran named Ray Boutwell.

Read More Show Less
Instagram/US Coast Guard

A former senior Coast Guard official has been accused of shoplifting from a Philadelphia sex shop.

Rear Adm. Francis "Stash" Pelkowski (Ret.) was accused of stealing a tester item from Kink Shoppe on Oct. 8, according to an Instagram post by the store that appeared online two days later. In the post, which included apparent security camera footage of the incident, a man can be seen looking at products on a counter before picking up an item and placing it in his pocket before turning and walking away.

The Instagram post identified the man as Pelkowski, and said it wished him "all the best in his retirement, a sincere thank you for your service, and extreme and utter disappointment in his personal morals."

Read More Show Less

SAN DIEGO —The Marines say changes in the way they train recruits and their notoriously hard-nosed drill instructors have led to fewer incidents of drill instructor misconduct, officials told the Union-Tribune.

Their statement about training followed an Oct. 5 Washington Post report revealing that more than 20 Marines at the San Diego boot camp have been disciplined for misconduct since 2017, including cases of physical attacks and racist and homophobic slurs. The story also was published in the Union-Tribune.

Read More Show Less