Restrepo (2010): United States – directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Rated R by the MPAA – contains strong language, intense thematic material, real-life violence
Restrepo is a challenging film, a documentary that presents some tough situations and the people who must live through them. It is difficult when the audience’s sympathy lies with the subjects and they act in ways that would be dishonorable under normal circumstances. But this is war, and whatever must be done to win is acceptable, no?
Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) managed to secure an embedded post, along with Tim Hetherington, in a US military platoon in one of the deadliest posts in the world: the Korengal valley in Afghanistan. During the time there the platoon lost some soldiers and killed many more militants. Captain Dan Kearney is the commander of the new forces, and is eager to erase past memories of American soldiers that the local civilians still harbor. Going in he refused to believe that the place was as bad as he was told. He was wrong.
Some have compared Restrepo to The Hurt Locker [review here], but I feel a more apt comparison could be made to Robert Altman’s MASH. There is very little sense of forward progression on the part of the troops, and much of their time is spent in brutal firefights or lazing around bored out of their minds. Their attempts at humor and roughhousing are their methods of dealing with the situation and the consequences that the war has on their psyches, much like how Hawkeye and Trapper John dealt with the Korean War.
The footage in Restrepo is comprised primarily of captured images from the time at the Outpost and post-conflict interviews. The actual footage from the firefights is intense and grueling, but it is the interviews that provide the most emotional impact. These are some of the toughest men America has to offer, and this experience has shaken them profoundly. There is not a great deal of plot progression in the film, but one section focuses on operation Rock Avalanche, an excursion into enemy territory to push back the Taliban. A botched airstrike leaves some civilians dead, and a counter attack by the Taliban severely hurts American forces. Hearing the soldiers talk about the counter attack, about their fallen and wounded, is riveting, frightening, and supremely affecting. One soldier comments that he won’t be able to forget the images, that he doesn’t want to forget the images because they make him appreciate everything he has back home. These are the moments that make the documentary more hopeful than depressing.
But there is a great deal of sadness, and very little sense of accomplishment. Captain Kearney speaks about how the establishment of OP Restrepo, named after one of their first fallen soldiers, is the apex of their deployment in the valley. During the night a group of soldiers started digging on the top of a small hill in enemy territory. When morning came they dropped their shovels, picked up their rifles, and returned the fire they were receiving from the militants. They continued alternating shovels and rifles until a stronghold had been established, described by Captain Kearney as a middle finger to the insurgents.
At the end of the film is a title stating that troops have been removed from the Korengal, that OP Restrepo has been abandoned. What, then, has been the point of such a costly endeavor? But the film doesn’t answer this question, and shouldn’t. It presents, as clearly as possible, the effect of the deployment on the soldiers, and tells the story of their time there. There is no greater cause or reason for the conflict; this is just the story of those who served.
The film focuses in on a few key members of the platoon. The young Pemble is eager to be a soldier. His mom was “a fucking hippy” who never let him play with guns, not even a plastic squirt gun. His interview about his childhood, laid over footage of him firing a mounted machine gun, is apt and clever without being too obvious. Pemble was friends with Juan “Doc” Restrepo, as was the rest of the outfit. Their reminiscences about their fallen medic are melancholic, and signs of the immense torment their souls suffer is visible through their tough demeanor.
But Restrepo isn’t as simple as it might seem. The American soldiers act as they need to in order to survive, but this approach provides some moments of discomfort. After an offensive in another part of the country cost several American lives Captain Kearney rounds up his troops and pumps them up with talk of revenge, of doing to the enemy what they did to us. One might hope that American soldiers would be able to provide a pep talk without stooping to the level of the enemy, but this is a pipe dream, certainly unfeasible in a war situation.
A number of scenes with the elders of the local village are illuminating. Captain Kearney routinely sits down with them in an effort to win “hearts and minds,” a task more difficult than simply killing the enemy. Watching the wizened faces of the red-bearded Hajjis it becomes clear that the American troops have nothing in common with these mountainous villagers. Americans are often quick to suppose that everyone around the world is the same, under the surface, but this is not true. By assuming that they are, American forces make a number of mistakes in their treatment of the locals, and this enormous cultural divide is clearly highlighted in Restrepo.
Restrepo is a difficult film. It is intense and tragic, profound and insightful. Audiences are familiar seeing war and the effects of it on soldiers, but rarely has it been this complexly presented. Restrepo does not provide answers; it merely shows the truth as it happened, horrifically and honestly. Few documentaries have this sort of power, and I fully expect to hear the film mentioned come Oscar season.