There’s no such thing as an anti-war war movie. The needs of the genre always make warfare thrilling; even though you may end up in tears and thinking about the tragic, senseless sacrifices of our boys, watching war Hollywood-style is a high. I ran out to play paintball after my first emotional screening of Saving Private Ryan.
War documentaries are another thing altogether. The reality of war is never as glamorous as it seems in big budget movies, and even when real combat is shown in a war documentary it’s always confusing and sudden and clumsy. Narrative cinema can get across the terror of being under fire, but it’s only in documentaries that I’ve understood the paralyzing storm of emotions that happens when a friend is killed in combat.
Restrepo has taken some heat for not being clearly anti-war enough, but I wonder if the people who say that really watched the film. The movie, co-directed by Tim Hetherington and hunky writer Sebastian Junger, never needs to have someone tell us that war is pointless because we see it, right there on screen. Documenting a year in the Korangal Valley, at one time the deadliest place in Afghanistan, Restrepo shows us soldiers whose only victory is the claiming of a tiny piece of ground, whose only attempt to get further into enemy territory ends up killing innocents, who can’t quite seem to find common ground with the locals and who can’t maintain security and will never get a promised road built. And who every day take fire. And who sometimes die. The pointlessness is burned into every frame of the film, culminating in a final title card that tells us the US military pulled out of the Korangal Valley in 2009.
But while the war is pointless and grinding Restrepo has great respect for the men. Or the boys, as is probably more correct. The men in the platoon are young, given to horseplay, foul mouthed and dreaming of home. They’re the same boys who have been fighting our wars for centuries, just with their own soundtrack. Restrepo opts to be about just those men, and is an almost exclusively experiential documentary. Junger and Hetherington’s cameras are always in Korangal Valley with the platoon, and the only talking heads are the soldiers themselves, talking about their deployment (and judging from context, they’re talking about it very soon after ending their tour). The film never tries to show us another POV – we never get to know the local Afghans, we never see what’s up with the brass, we never find out how the families at home are taking it. It’s just the soldiers, for 90 minutes.
It’s that feeling of truly being embedded that makes the documentary work so well. Adding to the up close nature of the film is the incredibly professional camerawork – a number of shots feel like they’re scenes from a narrative movie. You’ll be watching a scene of a flustered soldier talking during a firefight and you think you know where it’s going – he’s gonna catch a bullet in the face – because you’ve seen it so many times in the movie. Restrepo is remarkable in that it at once props up the visual cliches of war films while tearing down the narrative ones.
Restrepo is kind of a terrible title… until you’ve seen the movie. Then you realize what it means; PFC ‘Doc’ Restrepo was one of the most beloved men in the platoon, and he was one of the first to die. The new CO decides to advance the military presence in the Valley – there’s a specific line of death, the crossing of which brings out the full force of the local Taliban guerillas, and he wants to push that line back – the firebase they establish is named Restrepo. It’s the only victory the men have in the Valley, and its name is forever marked with the bitter tinge of their fallen friends’ name.
‘Doc’ Restrepo isn’t the only man to fall in the Valley. During the course of the year the film documents more men die, and the movie presents a particularly raw and unflinching view of the way the men handle it. I grew up understanding soldiers through the WWII generation – stoic, repressed and only willing to tell funny stories (but sometimes not clear on where the line separating funny from disturbing was) – so it was almost shocking to see the soldiers openly weeping during a firefight. It’s likely that’s how soldiers always reacted to the sudden, shocking death of their friends, but it’s never the way they told it, and narrative films seem to have bought it. In a war movie it’s the weak guy who breaks down when a friend dies; in Restrepo it’s everybody who is shaken to the core.
Restrepo is incredibly immersive and intriguing. 90 minutes feels too short, and at some point the slick editing made me realize that there’s a fuller dimension to this story we’re never seeing (I’m always troubled by docs like this, which wears the one year in the life badge proudly, doesn’t make clear when events are happening. Are the filmmakers mixing and matching events to get maximum impact?), which is too bad. Junger has a book out now about his time in the Valley, which I assume goes into more detail about the men and the year. The surface is only scratched, and I hate to be the kind of jerk who pretends to understand what these guys experienced thanks to a documentary I watched from my couch, but Restrepo does feel like it gives you more insight than any previous bit of media about Afghanistan.
8.5 out of 10