VOD Review - Last Men in Aleppo (Oscar Nominee)
The White Helmets is about the men in the Syria Civil Defense who volunteer to do search and rescue after air strikes or bombings. They basically pull people out of the rubble of demolished buildings. They are typically the first responders, especially since the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, has left many areas with little government support. The White Helmets follows three of those first responders, as one describes the rescue of a trapped baby named Mahmoud. Video of that specific rescue is featured at the top of this movie.
Khaled Omar Hurrah is the man holding baby Mahmoud in that video. He's not in The White Helmets as a protagonist, but he is the protagonist here. Khaled is a leading or main member of the Syria Civil Defense. He has two daughters. He apparently has a wife whom we never see. He's very cute and loving with his children. In addition to watching him do his work, his constant question is whether he should leave Syria or stay and continue working as a White Helmet.
If that conclusion is foregone, then the movie has to do other things to make the journey more interesting or engaging. Much like Restrepo (2010) at the 83rd Academy Awards and Cartel Land (2015) at the 88th Academy Awards, this movie sells itself on the fact that the cameras are on the ground in the thick of a lot of the action. The cameras capture real and live excitement contemporaneously. In Restrepo, it's soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. In Cartel Land, it's vigilantes fighting drug trafficking in Mexico. Here, it's blue-collar workers fighting the rubble that is ever-increasing in Syrian cities. It's immersive, making us feel like we're right there, surrounded by bombs and digging through rocks and dirt.
However, that kind of action can only be interesting on its surface so many times. I was bored after the first time. It's of course initially shocking and horrifying to see Khaled and his men do what they do, but there is a detachment to it that's intentional on the men's part. Yet, it shouldn't be intentional on that of the filmmaker's part.
That's where the true power of this movie lies, but that moment is rather isolated, as director Feras Fayyad never invites us into the homes of any other person, be it of these rescuers or the survivors. For the most part, the movie is either in a disaster or strike zone or it's hanging out at the base or center where the men of the SCD hang out. It would be the equivalent of hanging out the whole time at a fire station, if this movie were about firefighters. Even when Mahmoud's own brother, Ahmad, is nearly killed, the movie has a detachment about it.
The next scene after Mahmoud's brother is nearly killed is Mahmoud attending a wedding. It's a weird juxtaposition that's meant to show that life goes on even in a war zone where nearly every building has been decimated or torn open, barely standing up, but Fayyad never talks to anyone at that wedding. There's no real examination of how those recently wedded people are coping or how they feel about their circumstances.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
Available on Netflix.