Dir. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. USA. 2010

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Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Restrepo is an up close and personal documentary about the war in Afghanistan that depicts the day-to-day experiences of combat soldiers of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade as seen through their own eyes. The film has no narration or interpretation by experts, no special effects or background music, only an intimate recording by journalists Hetherington and Junger, who risked their lives to spend fifteen months with the men and to record their activities, some mundane, others hellish. 

The film is named for the military outpost in the crucial Korengal valley that the American soldiers built to honor one of their fallen friends, a 20-year-old medic, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, who was killed by the Taliban in July, 2007. Hetherington and Junger maintain a non-political stance, focusing only on the men, their courage and camaraderie, the highs and lows, the tedium and endless firefights, and the agony of having to come to terms with loss. Like the atrocity of the war itself, the film seemingly has no beginning and no end, only the end of one phase and the beginning of another, the battle for one rock and then another. 

As each soldier talks to the camera about their thoughts and feelings, their words convey an unforgettable impact, especially when they describe the terror of a mission called Operation Rock Avalanche, during which they came under the heaviest fire. It is not clear what the men thought about the mission, but what is clear is the bond they forged with each other and the heroism with which they faced the possibility that each new day could be their last. One of the most moving segments of the film is when a young soldier openly expresses his grief when learning of the death of his friend. If you still have a heart, it will be torn to bits. 

While the bravery of the men is unquestioned, like soldiers in any war, their focus is on the job in front of them and there is little time for reflection. In an unforgiving terrain, where even the enemy is an abstraction, it is hard to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” and the gunfire is aimed at a mostly unseen foe. At the same time, local farmers, including women and children, are often mistakenly killed by bombs dropped from helicopters, exacerbating strained relations with the local population. Locals are angry and demand money when one of their cows is killed, but only rice, beans, and sugar are offered as compensation along with vague promises about building an infrastructure in the area that will create jobs (what kind of jobs is not discussed).

In the midst of this insanity, it is sad is to hear platoon leaders still talking about how war makes boys into men, a theme used throughout history to justify turning recruits who join the military out of love of country, into dehumanized killers. Restrepo is a riveting documentary that shows us the human face of a war that, if it ever had a purpose, has now become completely pointless. To underscore this, we are told that after six years of bleeding and dying, the Korangal Outpost has now been surrendered to the Taliban. A deeply moving film, Restrepo becomes twice as poignant with the knowledge that one of the directors, Tim Hetherington, was killed in Libya only in the last month. We owe him and his co-director an enormous debt of gratitude. 


Howard Schumann

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