“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
– Proverb of unclear origin.
By October 2001, within a month of the U.S.-based terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, U.S. armed forces moved into Afghanistan in an effort to fight the Taliban, the organization who took responsibility for the attack. During that time, the U.S. military worked with locals as interpreters, a job that put the individuals at risk for retaliation by Taliban members to themselves and their loved ones. Per the Trump Administration’s orders, the U.S. military left Afghanistan per the Taliban-approved Doha Agreement, putting an end to the long-running war by September 2021 (though delayed slightly by the Biden Administration). When that happened, some interpreters were able to leave using special immigration visas while others were left behind. With a script by frequent collaborators Guy Ritchie (Wrath of Man), Marn Davies (Wrath of Man), and Ivan Atkinson (Wrath of Man), Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant uses the real-world experiences of many as inspiration for a dramatic wartime tale in which the bonds forged in battle cannot be undone, no matter time and distance.
Set prior to the Doha Agreement, Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads a unit whose specific function is to find the locations where the Taliban are building improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.) and other weaponry. After an incident that lead to the death of their interpreter, a newly-graduated-from-boot-camp native recruit, Ahmed (Dar Salim), takes over the position. At first, Ahmed’s direct demeanor and reluctance to follow orders ruffles Kinley, but a trust eventually forms that enables Kinley to make use of Ahmed’s local knowledge. However, when a mission goes sideways and Kinley and Ahmed are left on their own hours from base, the two must rely on each other like never before if they’re going to survive…and this is only the beginning of their trials together.
In truth, if not for Ritchie’s involvement, interest in The Covenant would ordinarily be low. There’s a certain hoo-rah American Exceptionalism that pervades a lot of wartime stories, unless being specifically cynical regarding the treatment of veterans. I should know better that Ritchie, a writer/director whose projects often skew dark but are capable of exploring complex themes with a humorous bend, would be capable of managing to create a tense dramatic that’s absent what often weighs down these kinds of stories. In fact, if not for the opening and closing text that provides the real-world context about the Afghan War, much of the film feels absent reality as it leans hard into the notion that the worst thing the American military could do is betray those who helped them, intentionally or otherwise. From the premise, one would expect that the film would actually be about Gyllenhaal’s Kinley trying to rescue Salim’s Ahmed in some kind of White Savior nonsense, but the execution of the film is vastly different and this is likely thanks to Ritchie’s non-American perspective.
The two-hour runtime is broken into four distinct parts: the introduction of characters, the mission that goes F.U.B.A.R., trying to get back to base, and Kinley’s desire to find Ahmed post-return. Yes, Kinley is our lead character, but this is specifically Ahmed’s story, the lynchpin to the heart and soul of The Covenant. Kinley’s just a soldier frustrated to spend his days putting his unit in harm’s way with little to speak of it, whereas Ahmed is putting *everything* at risk in order to have the chance, just the chance, at a special immigration visa. So when the shit hits the fan and it’s up to the two men to make it back to base, that Ahmed takes the lead, being the difference between life and death, over a lengthy sequence in which there’s little-to-no dialogue, the reality hits that The Covenant is intentionally placing Kinley as the lead in order to demonstrate the fragility of American Exceptionalism and the importance of living up to your obligations. Ahmed, at any point, could abandon Kinley, yet he repeatedly makes the choice, despite physical, emotional, and psychological trauma, to help the solider make it back to base. The argument that Ahmed is in more danger traveling with Kinley because the Taliban sees Ahmed as a traitor is real, as is the notion that he may be toiling so hard to save Kinley in hopes of getting he and his family out of the country. Yet, that would be a shallow reading of the film, despite the accuracy. Rather, there’s another perspective that relates to the title of the film. As plays before the credits, a covenant is defined as “a bond, a pledge, and a commitment.” These two men made one the moment that Ahmed agreed to be part of the unit, to do their level best to protect the other in service of the mission. Ahmed has all the reasons to join (loss of a family member to the Taliban) and all the reasons to dump Kinley the moment he’s defenseless (traveling with a U.S. soldier is dangerous and he wants to get back to his family), yet he doesn’t — brothers in arms, bonded by the blood of the covenant. This, of course, makes the final portion of the film carry extraordinary weight as Ritchie makes sure to point out the bureaucratic bullshit that disrespects the service of the local volunteers. Both actors bring their A-game to the narrative, enabling the audience to realize that the true hero of the story isn’t the American soldier fighting terrorism in a foreign land, but the man who gambles everything to make his country safer, including risking his own life.
It’s rather frustrating to acknowledge the absolute lack of bonus materials or special features included with the home release. This is growing increasingly common for MGM films when released on disc via WB Pictures, and I’m not sure why. Especially in the case of The Covenant, there were at least five brief featurettes exploring different aspects of the film released online in the run-up to the April 2023 release. At minimum, this indicts that there is behind the scenes footage which could be offered for folks who aren’t as chronically online as a film critic; at maximum, we know for a fact that it exists raising the question of why it wasn’t included. Additionally, the absence of a 4K UHD option is bizarre as Ed Wild’s (London Has Fallen) cinematography is gorgeous, grounding the film by capturing the narrative through realism that allows the natural colors of the environment to shine through as opposed to the traditional burnt look that many Afghanistan-based stories feature. Instead, all we get is scene selection, closed caption, and audio options. It is compatible with Dolby Atmos or 5.1, so at least there’s that?
Despite some pacing issues which make investment difficult to maintain, camerawork that can’t decide if it’s a secret observer or just capturing the action, and supportive characters that are a tad flimsy despite being played by top-notch actors, there’re plenty of reasons to get engrossed or moved by The Covenant, the bulk of which comes down to Gyllenhaal and Salim and the themes within the script. There’s resonance present that makes the film thematically relevant, challenging the audience to perhaps consider something they’ve falsely presumed: namely the notion that America always takes care of their allies. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Ritchie, Davies, and Atkinson, along with Gyllenhaal and Salim, make it go down more easily.
No special features included with the home release.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital June 20th, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.