A film review by Craig J. Koban December 3, 2010
2010, R, 94 mins.
2010, R, 94 mins.
A documentary directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.
is three things.
it refers to a strategic base of operations that is stationed in the
remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, which has been
unceremoniously described as one of the most dangerous places on earth by
From May of 2007 to July of 2008, Battle Company of the 173rd
Airborne Brigade were stationed at the deadly valley and the soldiers of the
Second Platoon unit built the Restrepo base.
The rugged six mile long valley that is the near the border of
Pakistan has become a focal point for the U.S. led war in Afghanistan and
has long been seen by intelligence officers as a vital relay point for
the Taliban that moves from Pakistan to Kabul.
RESTREPO refers to a person: a 20-year-old army medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo,
who was killed in action.
The soldiers of the Second Platoon named their base of operations
in the Korengal Valley after their fallen comrade out of respect.
RESTREPO is the name of one of the most transfixing war documentaries
I’ve ever seen, one that hurdles along its 90-plus minutes with a
startling immediacy and intimacy that I have rarely found in other talking
head portraits of men in combat.
It is also one of the most thanklessly courageous documentaries if
you consider how it was executed: The film was directed by American
journalist Sebastian Junger (best known for writing the book that the
PERFECT STORM was based on) and British photographer Tim Hetherington and
what they accomplish in tandem here is kind of extraordinary.
Beginning in 2007 both men completely immersed themselves within
the volatile climate of the Restrepo base and their raw footage captured
– intercut with debriefings with the surviving soldiers shot in
Italy – provides for a harrowing, heart-rending, and completely unforgettable
account of these men that served their country proudly.
cannot be understate how brave and audacious Junger and Hetherington were
when they set out to make this documentary.
The Korengal Valley is no playground.
Just consider the
hellish logistics of filming there: The pair
made a total of ten trips on assignment for Vanity fare and ABC news
respectively to the Valley and each trip began with a long helicopter
flight followed by a two hour walk to Restrepo.
Conditions at the station were less than hospitable: there was no
running water, no phone communications of any real kind, not to mention
that it lacked the basic home necessities of heat and power.
These fearless documentarians dug themselves deep into a Stone Age-like existence with these soldiers – while, of course, packing video
cameras – but what is truly frightening is that the base was attacked three
to four times daily from distances it has been reported as less than the
size of a football field.
That, and service men did die around the filmmakers during
and Hetherington suffered alongside the soldiers: they slept and ate with them
and tried to survive the mind numbing tedium of just waiting…and
waiting…and waiting for something to happen.
By the time they finished their own filmmaking tour of duty Junger
and Hetherington had amassed an astounding 150 hours of digital footage
that captured everything one could expect from these men: fighting,
starving off boredom and anxiety, maintaining a close level of
camaraderie, and, most importantly the personal toll it took on these men
that were stationed here.
Most of them were not there because they liked it; they did it
because it was a part of the job serving their country,
the end of 2007 it was surmised that nearly 25% of all fighting and combat
that was taking place in Afghanistan occured in the Korengal Valley.
This place was – clichés aside – a living hell that had no
real safe locations to unwind and feel secure.
Most accounts have stated that 50 Americans have been killed while
stationed there, (some men were murdered while asleep in their barracks).
One thing that the film places to the forefront with absolute
certainty is that the soldiers’ tours here were mentally and physically
taxing: 15 months in the deadliest place on earth…seriously…no amount
of money is too high to pay these valiant men serving their country.
of the most illuminating and refreshing aspects of RESTREPO is that –
considering its subject matter about a highly polarizing war effort - it
is a remarkably apolitical film.
By Junger’s own words, RESTREPO is an “experimental film”
that has “no moral or political analysis.”
Engaging in obligatory political sermonizing would have grounded
down RESTREPO into the same stale milieu of so many other routine war
docs, but the makers here understand one thing with an ingenious foresight
and compassion: their film is a fly-on-the-wall outlook on the soldiers
– warts and all – for what they do on a daily basis.
There is no longwinded discussion about foreign policy or whether
the solders themselves think the war is just.
Moreover, no politicians or high-ranking military men are
RESTREPO is all about following these men through all of the daily
terrors they have to go through and how their close-knit relationships are
one of the few things that keep them from snapping.
one could rightly argue that having a camera crew placed squarely on these
young fighting men could result in forced responses from them, kind of
akin to indirectly conspiring them to act, per se, unconsciously in front of
the camera instead of letting their emotions flow naturally.
this does not seem to be the case in RESTREPO, where
most of the subjects seem free of vanity and ego and respond with
spontaneity towards the daily grind of combat.
The interviews with them later – filmed three months after the
tours at Restrepo so that their reflections could be as fresh and unfiltered
as possible – are crucial to this film’s success.
The camera hugs their faces in many a close up as these men let
their emotions and expressions speak volumes.
Some of them are remarkably candid, some can barely speak without
breaking down recalling some nightmarish days, and some recount their time
with mixed feelings of pride and regret.
All of them share one thing in common: they never want to go back
to the Valley…ever. Yet, make no mistake about it: these are all
men of responsibility and sacrifice.
They did whatever they could do to survive an impossible situation
during an impossible war.
say “impossible war” because the film reflects – again, without
downright pontificating on it – that the campaign in this country seems
like one that is unwinnable.
There are several intriguing moments when the company leader,
Captain Dan Kearney, has meetings with elder tribal leaders that have
lived in Afghanistan for a lifetime.
The captain, via an interpreter, offers them protection, promises
of riches and prosperity, and a compassionate comrade versus the evils of
the Taliban. The
aging Afghan leaders do listen, but they also frequently object and reveal
their own uneasiness with the American occupation of their country.
Discussions always seem to end in stalemates.
again, it is the emphasis on the soldiers that makes RESTREPO such an
absorbing and thoroughly moving journey to take.
Few films – whether fictionalized or not – have so fluently captured the everyday nuance of combat the way Junger and Hetherington
Monotony begets moments of life threatening combat that later
begets more monotony…and so on, and these men seem to take it in stride
as part of earning a paycheck from Uncle Sam.
Sometimes, soldiers reflect on what an incomparable high it is to
shoot a weapon and be shot at (one young man says that nothing else in the
world, from skydiving to bungie jumping, can rank up with the adrenaline
rush of being shot at), but RESTREPO never makes these men naively cocky or
When one key member of the outpost squad is killed in a grisly
fashion, it’s a highly bitter reality pill to swallow.
No one, at this point, talks about the highs of combat; it’s nothing but a lowest of low points where the toughest of man
can be emotionally reduced to a traumatized victim.
I will always remember about this film and take away from it is what many,
I feel, often overlook when it comes to our fighting men and women:
respecting them for what they do.
Yes, you can disrespect the motives behind the wars they serve in,
but there should be no denying that these people command and deserve our
ultimate gratitude and respect, and the more RESTREPO stripped the daily
lives of these men down to their barest essences, the more appreciation I
felt towards them.
RESTREPO is a film that utterly channels the sheer maniacal chaos
and insanity of combat alongside showing what life is like for service men
when bullets and bombs are not being unpredictably levied on them.
The film is not concerned with the whys of the war in Afghanistan,
just the whos involved.
It’s an apolitical doc with a refreshingly atypical
approach, which is what makes Junger and Hetherington’s efforts here
resonate so compellingly as one of 2010’s most provocative films.