There have been several American cinema-verité style films about troops in the Middle East, the most famous of which might be the Hurt Locker, a film which strives to put the viewer in situ as an embedded eye. The Patrol purports to be the first film made by a British Writer/Director, Army veteran Tom Petch, about the British Army in Afghanistan. This is war stripped of all glamour, patriotic fervour and romantic heroism. Nerves and anger take over when a unit of seven men see an already uncomfortable and ill-equipped three-day mission turn into an increasingly dangerous extended stay.
The Patrol is nothing if not authentic, with the well-informed and advised Petch forcing his seven actors to go through actual Army drills in the 50 degree heat of the Marraskesh dessert in August, which apparently is indistinguishable from HelmandProvince. Mission accomplished: the audience spends 90 minutes in Hell, sharing the tension, boredom and frustration of the troops. The social divisions and personality differences between the men are allowed to emerge naturally and subtly out of the action.
What is missing, perhaps, for the audience is more context and a better understanding of why the mission seems so ill-equipped and hopeless. The soldiers complain about old and faulty equipment and running out of ammunition (this is 2006). Planes with provisions, as well as an ambulance chopper, seem to appear on demand when the radio lines work, but the men sleep on the stone ground in the ruins of a building. All we can do is accept the comments and reactions of the men through whose eyes we experience the conflict.
The film’s tightly control point of view is essential to the audience experience that Petch is aiming at, but it is also somewhat counterproductive. Petch has complained about the way in which the war is being reported, but there is nothing we experience that hasn’t been reported – including the old equipment (that was front page news for months), the 440 British casualties and the harsh conditions. We are given no information that the soldiers do not have about what has gone wrong, and no insights into the individual men’s thoughts and emotions that they do not share with others.
In the end, like the disillusioned men, we have earned the right to wonder about the futility of Western involvement in Afghanistan, if not about the purpose of films like this, however, well-made and well-intended.
By Joyce Glasser