Movie Review: 'Kandahar'
Do I actually like a Gerard Butler movie? I think I do.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Written by Mitchell LaFortune
Starring Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban
Release Date May 26th, 2023
Published May 24th, 2023
Is Kandahar a good movie actually? I am not sure. As a film critic, I've seen so many terrible movies starring Gerard Butler and many awful, racist, terrible movies set in the middle east. I am kind of numb to both Butler and the tropes of middle east set thrillers. And yet, I don't feel like I hated Kandahar. The film moves as a terrific pace, the action makes sense, the stereotypes are tempered by a relative even-handedness that criticizes American meddling in the middle east and the necessity American intelligence has to monitor the potential for uprisings that could threaten not just middle eastern security, but world security.
You can argue in the comments about your opinions of American intervention in the middle east, the politics, the greed involved, the corporate interests and so on. The bottom line is, Kandahar seems to give a fair perspective on the matter while telling a compelling story of survival via the tropes of an action movie. The movie pivots on an American mission in Iran that destroys a massive part of Iranian infrastructure related to the Iranian nuclear program. Intelligence regarding who was behind the mission is leaked to other middle eastern countries and it places the CIA Agent at the heart of the mission in great peril.
Gerard Butler stars in Kandahar as Tom Harris. Having posed as a phone company operative, he's actually used access to Iranian infrastructure to plant a bomb. In a tense scene, he narrowly misses blowing his cover through a clever bit of misdirection involving his phone, faster internet, and soccer. This set piece sets a tense tone that will rarely let up throughout the rest of Kandahar. Having narrowly escaped with his life, Tom looks to be headed home where his wife is waiting with divorce papers. He does have a welcome home from his young daughter waiting for him but when a fellow middle eastern operative, played by Travis Fimmel, offers him a mission that could pay for his daughter's college, he delays the trip home.
This is a fateful choice. Just as soon as Harris is on the ground in Kandahar, investigating the disappearance of several female teachers taken hostage by rogue Taliban forces, Harris' cover is blown worldwide. A leak of documents has exposed CIA operations across the middle east, including, and especially, Tom's mission in Iran. Now, Tom, along with his interpreter, played by Navid Negahban, are being hunted by several opposing middle eastern interests, each with their own motivation for wanting to capture and kill the American spy and his interpreter.
The key thing that I was moved by in Kandahar was the relationship that builds slowly between Butler and Negahban. There are elements here that we've seen before but Negahban is a very compelling actor whose presence seems to smooth out some of Butler's meathead tendencies. He's still mostly just a killing machine, but the story brings a bit of unforced nuance to Butler's motivations and his growing connection to Negahban is a strong root for the survival story. Director Ric Roman Waugh, whose work I have never cared for before, smartly builds a couple of dramatic set pieces that genuinely got my pulse racing.
This is going to come off as unkind but, in fairness to me, Gerard Butler has made a lot of terrible movies. He's made some genuinely unwatchable tripe. So, working my way toward giving him praise is going to detour into mean territory. The best thing that Kandahar does is prevent Butler from having to talk too much. There is very little of the meathead posturing, no awful, failing attempts at being charming or affable. Butler settles into a stoic, taciturn, resourceful character that feels fitting of the background of a spy with serious training as a soldier. His performance makes sense here, it doesn't need a lot of dialogue. The story is driven by a drive to survive and that's engine enough for the plot.
I can also praise Kandahar for being somewhat fair to Middle Eastern political interests. While the film still treats the middle east as mostly villains, there is an attempt here to show why people in the middle east harbor reasonable resentment, and righteous anger, regarding American intervention in their countries. I won't say Kandahar is deep but the movie does well to show the struggles at the heart of leadership in the middle east where various factions war with each other and outside interests over who should lead the future of the middle east.
A reasonable criticism of Kandahar concerns Moral Licensing, a social science concept that I heard about from Malcolm Gladwell on his podcast. Essentially, having one good guy character being of Middle Eastern descent gives the filmmakers 'moral license' to portray the rest of the middle east as villains. The character played by Navid Negahban provides a shield against criticism that Kandahar portrays the rest of the middle east as backwards and unendingly duplicitous or prone to violence. That's a fair criticism.
There are other middle eastern characters who are given some nuance and the arguments over leadership and the future of the middle east, the role Islam plays in that leadership, are given a moment to breathe in the movie but the movie has little time for much nuance and wisely avoids the weedy roots of the destabilization of the middle east that would take a years long Ted Talk to try and untangle. The movie tries to be fair and while that is a low bar when you consider how western film has portrayed the middle east in the past, but this movie does try.
Much credit in that effort goes to screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune, a Tillman Foundation Scholar and military veteran. On the website for the Tillman Foundation LaFortune is quoted as saying "I want to use my experiences from the army to examine the morality of our conduct in foreign countries." That's a noble goal. Is a Gerard Butler action movie the proper vehicle for such a goal? Perhaps not, but I think that LaFortune still has managed to infuse a Hollywood action movie with some nuanced perspective on the middle east. How successful he is with it is very much up to your interpretation.
In the end, this is an action movie about two guys fighting their way to get to a place where they can escape with their lives. In that narrow scope, Kandahar isn't that bad. But, if you place it in the context of western portrayals of the middle east, it's probably not very good either. I want to be fair to that criticism but also explain that the action is strong, Butler gives his best performance in years and Navid Negohban gives the film a beating heart torn asunder by conflict but surviving on will, grit, and the hope for a better future for the middle east and his family.
On a very simplistic level, you can sense how the conflict enacted via Negohban's character is reflective of the conflict at the heart of the middle east. It's not subtle. That said, they picked the right actor to embody that conflict. Negohban brings gravity to the role, his anguish, not just for the family he's lost but for the pain he feels over the state of the middle east is incredibly moving. It's a lot of weight for one actor to carry and he carries it about as well as anyone could. He's also not the only complicated and conflicted middle eastern character in the movie. Bahador Foladi plays a pivotal role, a family man caught between duty to country, his family and his own moral code of right and wrong. Ali Fazal's character, a Pakistani spy, is slightly less complicated but through him we get a strong sense of the problems facing the middle east and how outside interests, East and West, have prevented the stability needed to move forward.
Not many movies like Kandahar take time for such story beats but Kandahar manages this without having to slow down the action plot at the center of the film. So, is Kandahar good? I think it is. Again, I am so suspicious of movies starring Gerard Butler that I am struggling to trust my own feelings about Kandahar. I definitely felt the suspense, I was invested in the fate of the characters. I am deeply suspicious about the way middle eastern characters are portrayed but it is also not my place to say whether the representation is good or bad, that's for a middle eastern critic or scholar or general audience to determine. From a technical standpoint, yeah, I think Kandahar is good, actually.
(If you are bothered by how I have used the word actually, I am adopting an online vernacular for effect, I know how to properly use the word, I'm just playing around.)
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About the Creator
Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. I am a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.
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