Restrepo

Poster
2010
Tim Heatherington & Sebastian Junger

9/10 (Too superficial for my taste)

This is a crazy-intense documentary about an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, what was the most heavily contested arena in the U.S. war in Afghanistan and arguably the most dangerous region in the world.

What makes the movie so relentlessly intense is that it was shot by two embedded journalists during the height of the fighting. So you as the viewer see the real-life trepidation on real soldier’s faces as they go out on patrol, or the utter despair after losing a comrade.

By virtue of their access to events and their participants, the directors are able to bring war home to the audience in a way that has never before been accomplished. The footage is peppered with several post-hoc interviews of the main players that reinforce the narrative and offer intriguing emotional and psychological evaluations.

My only complaint with the film is a personal one, so I happily recognize that for many people this would be a perfect 10, and I can’t rationally argue with them. It’s just that for me, the whole concept of war raises so many fascinating moral and existential questions, all of which are either passingly mentioned or wholly omitted in “Restrepo.”

For example, there’s a great remark in the beginning from a soldier who became addicted to the adrenaline of a firefight and didn’t know what he would do after the war. The filmmakers don’t really bring it up again, though this is a fundamental problem of hired soldiers in the aftermath of modern warfare.

At another part, the soldiers are shown shooting from their outpost almost as if they’re playing a videogame: whooping and yipping like excited boys. It’s disturbing to hear them treating the killing of other human beings so casually, and the manner that one of the soldiers describes cutting down a particular enemy is chilling. This is the self-confessed “hippie” soldier who was raised without guns in the house and is clearly relishing being able to brandish them for the first time. (This raises a whole other interesting subject of how to appropriately rear a child in such a violent culture.)

There’s a persistent thread in the film that involves the army working with valley elders who are under the threat or influence of the Taliban. How can they gain their support when the Taliban can just come right in after them and kill them? Even if the elders want to help the U.S. (and few seem to), they can’t feasibly make that decision. This problem is addressed more often throughout the film but little effort is spent in presenting solutions (perhaps because none exist).

Then there’s the “Operation Rock Avalance” sequence in which they bomb out a suspected enemy stronghold in the valley only to find that they’ve killed 5 civilians and wounded babies and children. I would be much happier today had I not seen a bloody, screaming baby being carried out of the wreckage, but whether or not the directors should have left it out I can’t say for sure. I do know that it was utterly horrifying and I never want to see anything like it again. Worse, in my opinion, is that the soldiers involved seemed unrepentant and the issue of civilian casualties was never seriously addressed thereafter.

Lastly, there is the absurd post-note at the end of the film where they inform us that the Korengal Valley, over which dozens of soldiers and hundreds of Afghans bled and died for several years, was largely abandoned in 2010. I know how I felt upon reading that, but I wonder if the filmmakers’ minimalist approach will be lost on much of their audience.

Those are some of the examples of where I would have liked the movie to delve a little deeper. That said, the movie certainly does what it sets out to do. It throws the grisly circumstances of war up on screen and lets us interpret them. And by not delving too far into these questions (and not taking any real stance), they allow the material to reach a much wider audience. This is because it won’t be considered overtly political by either the hawks or the doves.

Without knowing for sure, I suspect that’s why the directors made this the way they did. There’s something artistic about letting people draw their own conclusions on controversial material. What I worry about is people seeing those images without commentary and coming to the wrong conclusion. For example, what if teenagers see the videogame shooting and think it’s really cool? In that case, the footage becomes destructive by perpetuating violence.

Regardless, this is an important movie and it should be seen by every American. But responsibly.

3/3/11

Other Reviews of “Restrepo

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