A film review by Craig J. Koban December 3, 2010

Rank: #13


2010, R, 94 mins.


A documentary directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.

RESTREPO is three things. 

Firstly, 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 CNN.  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.   

Secondly, 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.   

Thirdly, 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. 

It 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 the shoot. 

Junger 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, 

By 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.   

One 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.  That’s all.  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 interviewed either.  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. 

Now, 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.  Incredibly, 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. 

I 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.  Not surprising.   

Yet, 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 have here.  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 arrogant.  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. 

What 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. 

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