When a botched landing leaves a medical-evacuation helicopter grounded in enemy territory, a frantic plan is hatched to not only extract the crew and the wounded, but also to recover the chopper before the enemy can take credit for putting it down. As the rescue team can only safely land in daylight, the stranded must spend a night out in the open, keeping the injured alive with only basic field equipment and fending off the encroaching Taliban forces that lurk in the darkness. Developing his story from real events, Director Adolfo Martínez Pérez comes out firing with this tense, energetic tale of courage and fortitude.
Capitán Varela (Ariadna Gil) leads a team of battlefield medics to offer assistance when a joint force of USA and UN troops under Spanish command suffer a roadside injury while sweeping for mines in Afghanistan. Landing as close to the wounded as possible, the pilot misjudges the terrain, and a rear wheel sinks into the sand, tipping the whole chopper on its side. Back at the base, Comandante Ledesma (Antonio Garrido) convinces the generals that, given enough time, his squad can bring the downed helicopter back with the crew, and so the rescue is postponed until dawn, leaving Teniente Conte (Raúl Mérida) and his Spanish Legionnaires the unenviable task of protecting both the medics and the wounded from surrounding Taliban insurgents, who mount several attacks in the night.
Garrido steals the show as the cocksure Comandante Ledesma, sprinkling just the right amount of humour over tense and dramatic scenes.
There’s a tricky dichotomy in the creation of war films, particularly if the film-maker is of the same nationality as the armed forces they are portraying. On the one hand, it’s very easy to drift into patriotic propagandist territory, with national pride getting in the way of facts and reducing the opposing forces to simple, one-dimensional personifications of evil. On the other, to veer too far from that trope can lead to films coming across as pacifistic criticisms of war, that oversimplify the complicated reasoning behind these skirmishes and diminish the agency of the men and women that carry them out. With a subject matter as tangled and controversial as the occupation of Afghanistan following the Iraq war, it’s a testament, then, to the integrity of RESCUE UNDER FIRE that, while it doesn’t walk the tightrope perfectly, it never really falls too far on either side.
The lean, 93 minute script, written by Luiz Arranz and Andrés M. Koppel, wastes no time moralising on the complexities of war, choosing instead to focus closely on the lives of the men and women that serve. As Capitán Varela, Gil is straightforward and focused, with a deep sense of duty present as she time and again risks her life to provide medical aid. Mérida’s Teniente Conte is stalwart and brave, living under the vast shadow of his general father, and shows the slightest hint of insecurity and vulnerability when his leadership is compared to his old man. Garrido steals the show as the cocksure Comandante Ledesma, sprinkling just the right amount of humour over tense and dramatic scenes with his impish wit and penchant for giving his comrades a hard time.
The director is decisive and confident with the mood he is trying to set, and he does so with a flourish.
Behind the camera for the first time on a feature film, Adolfo Martínez Pérez previously worked extensively in the art department, and his pedigree shows through his direction. The choices of shots are certainly nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but nonetheless they make for some beautiful imagery. Wide, expansive vistas of the Afghan deserts at sunrise are breathtaking, while the close, frantic gun battles in the dead of night are chaotic and claustrophobic – no matter the scenario, this storyboard artist turned director is decisive and confident with the mood he is trying to set, and he does so with a flourish.
In the sea of modern war films offering small snippets of life in Afghanistan, there is very little that truly distinguishes RESCUE UNDER FIRE from those around it, a fact that would be difficult to avoid without compromising the story that was originally envisioned. What does separate it, however, is enough to make it worth viewing. The choice to focus primarily on medics trying their best to keep people alive, even when the Taliban attack and the Legionnaires are forced to kill, helps to avoid the typical glorification of senseless death that all too often comes with such films. This outlook is decidedly positive, and serves as a necessary reminder that wars are fought to preserve life, not to take it.
RESCUE UNDER FIRE screened as part of the 37th annual Cambridge Film Festival.