September 2006, around the area of the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, and the NATO troops are trying to get the Taliban under control in the region, no matter how dangerous it may be. Explosions going off at random intervals are a fact of life there, though one paratrooper, "Tug" Hartley (Mark Stanley), did not expect to be enjoying a cooling swim there when something was detonated nearby and he quickly makes for the shore. There he discovers it was not enemy fire, it was kids using explosives for fishing, and he tells them off before a couple of his colleagues approach and pour oil on those troubled waters: it pays not to rile the locals. But not everywhere has such an innocuous consequence to the blasts...
This was, as the opening titles tell us, a true story, and it ends in time honoured fashion by offering us photographs of the actual people it was about, along with captions telling us what happened to them as emotive music plays. It was undoubtedly an emotionally charged tale, the soldiers on the ground in one of the most controversial war zones of the early twenty-first century who nobody back home blamed for being in this situation, and were full of sympathy for their predicament. Director Paul Katis, making his debut feature after a selection of documentaries and shorts, looked determined to render as realistic an atmosphere as possible, and that struck a chord in many viewers.
What happens to the British soldiers is that while on a routine patrol they stumble across a minefield in the worst way when one of their number is caught by one and loses his foot in the calamity. The trouble is to prevent anyone else doing the same, which proves impossible since those mines are so well concealed, so what could have been a farce, with one soldier after another getting blown up after going to help the previous afflicted comrade, swiftly becomes tragic and agonising. What some had issue with was whether it was suitable for a movie, as aside from the explosions not much happened; fair enough, that was bad enough, but we found ourselves simply watching injured men wracked with pain and their pals forced into uselessness watching at the sidelines.
Bearing that in mind, what Katis and screenwriter Tom Williams got right, according to those who had served, was that much of the foreign presence in Afghanistan was left to wait around for extremely long stretches of time in between the bursts of activity, and the boredom was something the characters portrayed at the beginning, before the mines went off, yet also as they were left with nothing to do but wait for the helicopters to rescue them in airlifts, the pain they were undergoing obviously doing little to make that time go any more quickly. In that way Kajaki resembled one of those endurance horrors such as Open Water or The Shallows, where a small number of people, or even just one, had to face up to the fact that they were trapped in a hostile environment and were going to die as a result.
That is unless assistance comes before that happens, and we are told those choppers are on their way, it's just they are taking their own sweet time in getting there. As far as depictions of wounds went, this was one of the most authentic movies out there, with all the severe discomfort that brought with them, if that was any kind of recommendation: this was no Hollywood action movie where a bullet in the shoulder could be shrugged off when there was still work to be done. One problem, apart from discomfiting the squeamish, was the dialogue, naturally the actors swore like there was no tomorrow, but they also rushed or mumbled their lines in strong dialect, again, possibly authentic but making for a test of the patience if you could not make out what they were talking about. For a film that largely took place in a single location (it was shot in Jordan for more verisimilitude) there was perhaps not enough variety for most, the plot was very thin, though there was little Williams could have done about that. Worthy, admirably sincere, but unfortunately monotonous.