The 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road, directed by and starring Paul Gross, represents a modestly competent effort to portray the complexity of war in Afghanistan. Though not completely successful, the movie, about a Canadian Army mission to build a paved road into the heart of Taliban country outside Kandahar, can’t be faulted for not trying to pack a lot in: the problem of attempting nation-building and infrastructure improvement in a combat zone, the life-or-death aggravation of following rules-of-engagement, the variety of viewpoints up-and-down the chain-of-command, the burden of trying to balance romance and duty while on deployment, the difficulty determining which Afghans can be trusted, and the diversity of motivations among the Afghans themselves.
And all that’s just for starters, for, most of all, Hyena Road is interested in the big question whose unanswerability is one of the main reasons war in Afghanistan has dragged on for over 17 years: whether special operations kill-and-capture or counterinsurgency (COIN) advise-and-assist tactics might best bring victory. In other words, bodies-and-bullets or hearts-and-minds? Something of a cross between War Machine and American Sniper, Hyena Road strives to be both a thinking-man’s war movie and a sensational shoot-‘em-up, a movie that plumbs strategy and psychology at the same time it celebrates masculine fighting ability.
The movie’s approach to dramatizing the kill-or-COIN dilemma is reflected in its two male leads. One, Captain Pete Mitchell, is a civil affairs/intelligence/effects staff officer trusted by the high command, cool with the butch-y women in the HQ, and on the same page, though firmly in the friend zone, with the hot-chick battle captain who runs the Tactical Operations Center that is his primary duty station. Mitchell doesn’t just grind through 12-hour shifts preparing briefing slides, however. Possessing an array of Afghan contacts and a deep knowledge of the country’s history, he also undertakes solo missions through Kandahar’s back alleys and independently leads patrols into the hinterlands. Believing that the royal road to victory is best traveled by drinking tea with Afghans to earn their loyalty and commitment, Mitchell asserts that he trusts Afghan soldiers with his life and that it is “their war, we’re only along for the ride,” while also cynically observing, “Hearts-and-minds is mostly just PR. The Afghans just want our money and a little bit of stability.” Rarely losing his sense of humor, even in the middle of an ambush, he quips when asked if he can shoot, “Fuck no, I’m intel.” A very suave COINdinista-warrior for the modern working-day, Mitchell is played by Gross himself, who, though largely unknown to American audiences, is apparently something of a Canadian George Clooney.
Hyena Road’s other male lead is Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, the leader of an elite sniper unit composed of burly bearded special operations bubbas. The shooting side of war all he knows, Sanders believes that victory is best achieved by killing bad men doing bad things, or, as he states, “I believe in the possibility of changing everything with one bullet.” Comparisons are said to be odious, but it’s hard not to measure Sanders against Chris Kyle and the actor who plays Sanders, Rossif Sutherland (brother of Kiefer, son of Donald), to Bradley Cooper. (The cheapest shot the movie opens itself up to is wondering why Gross didn’t call it Canadian Sniper, ha-ha.) Sanders is not as uncomplicated as Kyle, which is fine, but as an actor playing a man with more confirmed kills than he count, Sutherland is a little weak in the jawline and puppy-doggish of eye to compare favorably with Cooper.
Mitchell and Sanders join forces to protect the engineers, contractors, and local nationals building Hyena Road (why doesn’t the movie call it “Route Hyena,” in convention with military naming practices?); Mitchell by forging an alliance with a legendary mujahedeen fighter known as “the Ghost,” Sanders by taking out the IED emplacers and other Taliban fighters obstructing the road building project, who may or may not work for the Ghost. Things get dicey, though, when it turns out that treacherous allied militia prove most responsible for the obstruction, and tricky when it turns out the the Ghost is the most reliable partner the Canadians have. Mitchell and Sanders establish an easy rapport when Mitchell congratulates Sanders for bedding the smoking-hot battle captain–“On behalf of the entire battle group,” Mitchell states, ‘I’d like to express our collective fucking jealousy”—but later, after things get dicey and tricky, the two engage in several manly-men-shouting-at-each-other debates about the best way to win the war:
Mitchell: “Unless you see weapons, do not intervene…. Do not engage…. Those are the rules of engagement!”
Sanders: “What kind of fucking war are we fighting here?!”
Mitchell: “It’s not one war, it’s many wars! It’s like playing 3D chess!”
I’m the last one to recommend killing our way to victory in Afghanistan, and I had my own truck with special operators during my deployment there, where I had a job much like Mitchell’s and a major road-building effort of my own to facilitate. Still, Mitchell gets the worst of it in these debates, which I’m not sure is exactly what Gross had in mind. Given the scenarios offered within the movie, Sanders’ focused and righteous indignation at not being able to shoot all the evil people he meets registers truer than Mitchell’s long-range, wide-view, kaleidoscopic perspective that seems to require an awful lot of tea-drinking with people who want you gone, if not dead. But then, it’s complicated, and Hyena Road at its best dramatizes the complications in somewhat cartoonish, but also somewhat compelling, terms.
Hyena Road’s subplot traces the lusty little FOB romance between Sanders and the battle-captain babe, Captain Jennifer Bowman. Worried that their dalliance is attracting attention, which it is, Captain Bowman decides to break things off, even as she tells Sanders, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than fraternize the shit out of you.” Sanders, his softiness showing after being cut-off from probably the best-he’s-ever-had, replies, “Don’t say things like that. It hurts.” They’ve already done the dirty deed often enough, however, that one of super-sniper Sanders’ bullets—the fertile, not the deadly, kind—has found its mark, as a sonogram reveals Bowman is with baby (oops, someone forgot to wear his wet-weather-jacket…). The development reunites Bowman and Sanders in gooey-eyed contemplation of a shared future, but, spoiler alert, the effort to build Hyena Road doesn’t end well for Sanders (think Platoon), or, for that matter, since single motherhood now beckons, for Bowman either. Christine Horne, as Bowman, is a little too skinny and angular for a thoroughly buffed-up or puffed-up modern military woman, but she looks terrific nonetheless, with gorgeous crinkly worry lines around her eyes and mouth, as she strides about the TOC barking out orders like a cross between Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Michelle Rodriguez in Fort Bliss: seriously frowny-faced serious war women who seriously want everyone to know just how seriously serious they seriously are. I joke, in part, but in truth a more interesting movie than Hyena Road would be one that explored war thoroughly and, er, seriously, through the eyes of Horne’s character.
Also very serious—and also terrific—is Clark Johnson as Brigadier General Rilman, the Canadian general who, because his ass is on the line if Hyena Road doesn’t get built, puts everyone else’s ass on the line, too. A man under extreme pressure, General Rilman communicates his orders and desires as bluntly and coarsely as possible to make sure no one has any doubt about exactly what he wants. It’s a fantasy of male decisiveness that many military leaders aspire to (as does our current commander-in-chief) and in truth it’s a pretty appealing leadership style when it works well: lots and lots of smart people don’t mind working for a boss who keeps things very simple for them, and even if such Alpha males are loud-mouthed buffoons it’s often best just to stash them on top “in-charge” because expecting them to handle the details and nuances of staff work is more trouble than it’s worth. General Rilman is not a buffoon, but one of the nicest moments in Hyena Road captures Captain Mitchell eyeballing him as he lets everyone know that completing Hyena Road is his number one priority—you can see Mitchell’s gears turning as he contemplates how such an apparently impossible mission is one that he alone, or he with the help of a few friends, might be able to accomplish.
Hyena Road’s good intentions and best parts unfortunately are undercut by tilts toward half-baked ridiculousness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Afghan characters. Whether their parts are underwritten or the actors themselves are just plain bad, it’s hard to tell, but the result is the same clichéd good guys, bad guys, and comic foils (most given cornball nicknames like “the Ghost” or “the Cleaner”) who populate other movies about Afghanistan, such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Lone Survivor, War Dogs, and War Machine, to name a few. I don’t think Hollywood, or its Canadian offshoot, has it in itself to portray a realistic Afghan any more than it did in the old days to portray a realistic Native American, but maybe when someone gets around to filming Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue or one of Nadeem Aslam’s novels, I’ll be proven wrong. One can only hope….
Not to end on such a bummer note, Hyena Road does a few things very well. The recreation of Kandahar airfield is excellent, as is the replication of a modern computer-work-station and big-screen-filled operations center. Although the major battles are a little on the cowboys-and-Indians side, the sniper scenes are great. A scene in which one of the sniper’s wives offers her hubby a boob-shot via Skype strikes a nice contemporary note (yay, technology), though in truly predictable movie fashion, the sniper gets waxed the next time he goes outside the wire. A vignette in which Sanders’ men prepare their weapons and gear for a nighttime mission to the thumping soundtrack of a rousing blues-rocker is fantastic gun-porn for our gun-addled times—who cares if Hyena Road ever gets built as long as forever war gives boys endless opportunity to play with the toys they love so much and filmmakers opportunity to make movies about them?