Sports announcers often use military analogies to describe the athletes and action they cover. Players are referred to as warriors and heroes, and games as battles and campaigns. I never served in the military, so the silliness of such comparisons slip past me, most of the time, unnoticed. Restrepo, a documentary covering a year in the life of a platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley reminds me of how ridiculous it is to compare pampered athletes to soldiers serving anywhere and underscores how far removed we are, as Americans, from the hardships faced by our fighting troops.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger, the film’s directors, were embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during their 14 month deployment in one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground in our current war in the Middle East. The footage they captured, both on their own and from the soldiers themselves, is stunning in its intimacy with the day-to-day details of soldiering in the 21st century.
The style of the film is similar to D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. There is no talking head narration. The only framing comes from interviews done with about a half-dozen of the soldiers after the tour was completed. And so it is that we are dropped into the midst of these men and witness camp life, from the horsing around that breaks up the monotony of repetitive chores, to the chaos of the frequent ambushes that take place when squads are out on patrol. It doesn’t get any more compelling than this.
As censorship in feature films has grown more lax and special effects have gotten more sophisticated, film makers have made movies that seem to get it right, but after seeing the real-time reactions of soldier in the midst of an ambush, without the aid of slow-motion and jump-cuts, I begin to see just how big a gap there is between the Hollywood version of war and the real thing.
The most intense scenes in Restrepo deal with an operation called Rock Avalanche, a multi-day foray into Taliban controlled territory. Interview footage with the surviving soldiers is intercut with footage shot during the various engagements with locals and an ambush where the Taliban seemed to come at the soldiers from every angle.
One Sergeant – Rice – is shot twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which leaves him covered in shrapnel wounds. His descriptions of the scene and how he figured he was living his last moments are humbling to witness.
Not long after Rice is hit, another Sergeant – Rougle – is killed in action. Witnessing the reaction of one soldier to the news of his death, I felt like I shouldn’t be seeing this – that it was too personal and none of my business. That said, Hetherington and Junger treat the situation with respect, all the while letting us see how each of a few gathered soldiers responds to the knowledge of this loss then regroups to deal with the situation at hand.
By cutting out the familiar sounding generals, commentators, and Afghani apologists, we are left with only the accounts of the soldiers who fought in the Korengal valley – from their captain down to the specialists who followed his orders. It’s as intimate a portrait of military life as we’re apt to get, and over the course of the film, as we hear from about a half-dozen of them as they try to process the intense fighting they’ve just experienced, it’s impossible not to care for these guys, to hope and pray that they make it back home and are able to get on with their lives and enjoy the freedom they’ve purchased for us.
Hetherington and Junger leave the spin to us, and for that we should be grateful, for the images and insights that are passed on to us would be shamefully cheapened by politics.
My rating: 9 of 10