movies, sketches, cinemas, film festivals and the occasional film-making
May 6, 2011
This documentary, following a US Army platoon (Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Brigade Combat Team) for 15 months in the Korungal Valley, has added poignancy with the recent death in Libya of co-director and photojournalist Tim Hetherington. And now, since seeing it, Osama bin Laden has also been killed. It's an interesting historical context within which to watch and consider Restrepo.
The doco itself is quite something, and I can guarantee there won't be a film that gets as close to the action and truth of being a soldier in wartime as this one. I don't profess to knowing the first damn thing about it myself but through this film, you get a sense of it. Hetherington and co-director Sebastian Junger must have had balls of steel to embed themselves this far in to an active unit. They're there, capturing every moment from flying in with the boys, to leaving with them. The title refers to "Doc" Restrepo, a popular man among the men and one of the first casualties once reaching the valley. After establishing a forward Operating Post, they name it after him: Restrepo O.P. The majority of the film takes place in this hastily constructed frontier outpost of the American military and sticks with these boys (and they are largely boys) as they take fire from the surrounding hills and attempt to hunt down Taliban guerrillas and (conversely) smooth things with the elders of the various villages.
This is a largely experiential documentary, told in a mainly linear fashion but not being afraid to jump around a bit. There is some context given to events with interviews with the soldiers interspersed with the documentary footage. But aside from those, you're largely left to keep up; there is no narration and no interviews or views from outsiders. This is all about these men, during this operation. There is no commentary offered or intended on the larger issue of the "war on terror". The aim of the filmmakers is not to lionise or demonise these troops, but rather just to show them. You get a sense of some more than others, as we spend more time with them and some figures rise to the surface. There's the kid who wasn't allowed sugar, let alone toy guns, when he was growing up. And now he's sat behind huge guns firing off massive rounds, killing at a remove. There are the various leaders trying to talk with the village elders, trying to keep their men alive, trying to push forward.
This is visceral filmmaking that doesn't shy away from much while managing to never becomes voyeuristic though. There is the fear, boredom, camaraderie, loss, adrenalin and frustration that I can only imagine is what active service is like. What Junger and Hetherington have achieved here is nothing short of astonishing and I can only assume there is some small consolation in the fact that Hetherington died doing what he evidently loved so much.