Take “The Hurt Locker” and make it real; there you have “Restrepo.” Never before has a documentary taken us so close to the war in Afghanistan. You’ll jump out of your seat as the mortars go off, the machine guns fire, and the platoon’s comrades fall under enemy attack. When the soldiers in the movie talk about their harrowing nightmares, they’re not just paying lip service. After you watch, you might just have those nightmares, too…
Restrepo, Directed by: Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Many fictional films attempt to recreate reality and make it into art, often asking us to project ourselves onto the characters. When a filmmaker embarks on a documentary, they are essentially cutting out the middle man (the actors) and attempting to create art out of life as it is being lived. Restrepo, a war documentary of a new order, is an unassuming work of insightful journalism and people under stress.
Instead of analyzing the reasons behind the war in Afghanistan or the political implications of the war, the filmmakers (Hetherington and Junger) lived side-by-side with soldiers for a year in an attempt to intimately understand their experience. They accompanied a single platoon on a tour of duty in the dangerous Korangal valley, in which the soldiers – horribly exposed, and with a knowledge of the terrain so far inferior to the enemy’s that it was practically blindfold guesswork – had to build a forward outpost to establish their position. This they name Restrepo after one of their popular comrades, Private Juan “Doc” Restrepo, killed at the campaign’s outset. This defiant tribute springs from a need to impose their collective identity on this alien and menacing landscape.
In this context, it’s hard to imagine the courage it took to shoot the film armed with nothing but a camera as actual shots rang out around them. The deaths and injuries in the film feel excruciatingly real, even those of the often overlooked Afghan civilians. The death of “Doc” Restrepo reverberates through the film and haunts the rest of the soldiers. They name their outpost in the valley after him, but its those home movies of him that bookend the film that shows how he is truly remembered.
Laughter in the dark … (Restrepo)
There is no criticism or political angle in “Restrepo”. It is an exercise in visceral intimacy. And it isn’t an obviously political film. The whys and wherefores of the US presence aren’t discussed. The directors prefer to focus on the adrenalin and buzz of armed battle. Also, this is in no way an anti-war film, nor is it pushing any other sort of agenda. Restrepo just explores the human side of war – humanizing these soldiers is of the essence to hit home the directors’ point: these are people fighting our war. A simple message, sure, but one that is most powerfully made by the actual people and not by actors. Being put right in the middle of one of the most violent war zones on Earth means that a shootout could happen at any moment, and it feels like it in this movie. We watch the weary soldiers stalk through the mountains crouched and ready for battle, and it is consistently nerve-wracking.
Part of the intrigue of “Restrepo” is how familiar the soldiers are and how easy they are to identify with—each one seems like a friend’s brother or a student down the hall. They aren’t monsters but men in a high-pressure situation who, at times, display humor and camaraderie, as well as fear and vulnerability. Yet sometimes the soldiers might seem insensitive or crude, such as when they celebrate the shooting of an enemy plane and call their experiences under gunfire “the ultimate high.” Hetherington said in the discussion, “war is also very funny sometimes—that’s an awful thing to say.” Yet it rings true when one soldier says to another “hearts and minds,” and his friend jokes, “yeah, we’ll take their hearts and take their minds.”
Young soldiers are seeing troops being shot dead in front of their eyes. When Junger and Hetherington interview one of them about this experience, he breaks off mid-speech – and of course we, the audience, expect tears: it is a familiar moment in all types of documentary. But what is happening is more disturbing. The man has broken off in a kind of horror at remembering what he has clearly repressed until this moment. It is a flashback – that cinematic term widely applied to post-traumatic disorder.
“Yeah, we’ll take their hearts and take their minds…” (Restrepo)
The emphasis on objectivity and evasion of a clear political message is explained by the backgrounds of the film’s creators—journalist Junger and photojournalist Hetherington are both seasoned war correspondents. The two explained, “we wanted to relate the emotional terrain of war.” The film is almost entirely without music, except for a small handful scenes in which one private plays up-tempo yet mournful songs on the guitar that survives PFC Retrespo. Also, the nail-biting sequences are interspersed with interviews conducted after the event, which carry a concealed emotional charge. It is only from these that we can be certain which soldiers have survived. Yet one of the soldiers poignantly observes, “I don’t want to not have these memories, because they’re the moments that make me appreciate all that I have.”
“Restrepo” is no “Fahrenheit 9/11” with hidden political devices and manipulations. It never even asks the men why they decided to join the army or what they think about the war. Neither is it a glorification of America’s military prowess. Hetherington’s theme of “exploration of young men and violence” helps contextualize the film. Restrepo is clearly a movie focused on the Americans’ fear and suffering, rather than the Afghans’, leaving the judgment up to us. The film is at its best when it shows the the soldiers taut with stress, and then the interviews that show their worn-down faces. Like the Best Picture winner before it, it succeeds because it doesn’t preach, but rather takes us to the edge of sanity and forces us to take a long look. It is a scary, moving and troubling film.
… and the final scene makes you break down not into tears, but into PURE ANGER. As for the title: “Restrepo, another Gestapo”… yes, by “Gestapo” I mean/I’m pointing out Sven Hassel’s novel.
Thanks to The Guardian, The Telegraph and The NY Times for nudging me into seeing this incredibly great documentary.
Have a look at the trailer for “Restrepo”: