by Genevieve Yue
Dir. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, U.S., National Geographic Films
As the U.S. nears the decade mark in the wars currently being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been a mounting number of fiction films and documentaries made about the two conflicts. While Hollywood has always been invested in catching war from the front lines, the cinematic output born of this particular moment has far exceeded that of any previous combat situation. Restrepo, a documentary by embedded journalists Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington (a cinematographer on The Devil Came on Horseback), is the latest addition to this body of work, and judging by its Sundance reception, where it won the grand jury prize for best documentary, it may become one of the most celebrated as well. The film focuses on “one platoon, one year, one valley,” and in particular it concerns a 15-man unit from the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade that is deployed in Afghanistan’s dreaded Korengal Valley, dubbed the “Valley of Death” by the New York Times. There, over the course of 15 months in 2007 and 2008, they build Outpost Restrepo, named for a fallen comrade.
In her Reverse Shot review of The Hurt Locker, Jeannette Catsoulis describes Kathryn Bigelow’s film as a love story, and in a similar vein, Restrepo could be considered not a war movie at all, but something more like a family melodrama. Despite the genre’s exaggerated distance from the kind of truth claims such “objective” documentary practices entail, Restrepo is entirely about the way these men (and there are no women who share their deployment) band together, fighting for each other every day. There’s little sense of individuality, though a few soldiers stand out: the eponymous Restrepo, seen mostly in hammy cell phone footage he shot of himself; Specialist Miguel Cortez, with his disarming grin, describing the insomnia he’s suffered since his return; and the boyish Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin, who was raised in a hippie Oregon household devoid even of squirt guns. When Pemble describes the birthday call to his mother and his inability to tell her about the horrors he’d witnessed, he expresses the depth of the unit’s bond, sharing experiences so profound that no one else, not even the immediate families of his fellow soldiers, could possibly understand. In another scene, Pemble fills a letter home with a stark drawing of his surroundings, a breathtaking reminder of how beautiful the landscape is in its rugged isolation. One soldier asks him jokingly, “Are you really drawing the Korengal Valley?” Pemble smiles bashfully. “It’s the only thing I know how to draw.”
Restrepo follows in the wake of The Hurt Locker not only for its high profile, award-laden visibility but also for its claims of apoliticism. In the materials surrounding Restrepo, including Junger’s periodic Vanity Fair reports and his recently published War, a book that describes the same deployment, Junger and Hetherington emphasize life from the soldier’s perspective, eschewing questions of political motivation. They don’t ask why the U.S. is stationed in the Korengal, because, as they explain in interviews elsewhere, these are matters the soldiers themselves do not have access to. Instead, the film focuses on their lived experience, a mixture of boredom, weight-lifting, practical jokes, chaos, grief, and the constant threat of enemy fire, which rains down on the platoon on a daily basis. Interspersed with the footage are candid interview clips shot in Italy following the tour of duty. Junger and Hetherington’s cameras are flies-on-the-bunker-walls, purporting to the direct cinema school of documentary filmmaking that emerged in the late Fifties and Sixties with films like Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) and the Maysles’ Salesman (1968). Claiming the same kind of objectivity through its access to “raw” footage, Restrepo erases the presence of its filmmakers, ignoring the critique of the “embedded” filmmaker acknowledged by direct cinema’s European counterparts in cinéma vérité, who argued that no film was ever entirely objective. If point-of-view wasn’t stated outright, it was still inscribed in editing, framing, and the selection of certain material over others.
There is much to be celebrated about Restrepo; this is filmmaking done close to the ground, as one of the opening shots drives home, when, with the arrival in the Korengal Valley, an IED explodes under the humvee carrying the platoon. The camera shakes violently as dirt flies on the windshield and soldiers frantically yell out instructions to “keep going.” The directors excel in describing the texture of war, from the rocky crags of the Korengal to the sweat-stained tee-shirts of the men as they wrestle in the mess hall. The filmmakers cut rapidly from wide, misty landscapes at dawn to the machine gun shell casing that lands in a soldier’s shoe after it’s been fired. War isn’t pretty, and here it’s far from Hollywood glamorous. Restrepo achieves the kind of harrowing, intimate footage embedded journalists sought ever since they began accompanying soldiers to the battlefield in 2001. But the film’s supposed apolitical nature keeps the focus so narrow that it risks losing the bigger picture.
The access the filmmakers have to the soldiers, whose trust they earned through their own sacrifices—both Junger and Hetherington suffered severe injuries during their assignment—comes with an unquestioned attitude of “support our troops,” and by refusing to situate the experience of the Second Platoon in the broader context of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” the film remains dangerously complicit with the politics that rationalize and legitimize the war. It falls well within the guidelines set out by the military’s prohibited activities list, which was severely restricted after the images of Abu Ghraib leaked to the press, and while Restrepo was not formally required to do so, Hetherington in interview notes that the U.S. military asked “to review a rough cut later for security and privacy concerns,” primarily for sensitivities around the representation of dead or wounded soldiers. While the army has opened up to the use of social networking sites like YouTube to allow soldiers to tell their own stories, this “transparency” is still bound by invisible rules that typically restrict broader critique, promoting instead an empathetic and exalted image of servicemen as heroes, even while the mainstream media still refrains from showing caskets of the war dead.
The film contains certain moments, however, that point to a sense of ambivalence regarding the war effort. When Captain Dan Kearney talks to local elders at one of the weekly shuras, he admits to the camera that the Americans’ promises of cooperation and material gain have been significantly undercut by civilian death. The platoon’s greatest achievement, the building of Outpost Restrepo, is similarly dashed by a title at the end of the film that indicates that the U.S. abandoned the Korengal Valley at the end of 2009, after 42 American lives had been lost. The difficulty of keeping a film about war apolitical comes through in a bittersweet moment when one soldier, setting up a gun on the side of a mountain, chats with a friend on a walkie-talkie. As he compares his family ranch to their mission in Afghanistan, the soldier on the other line interjects: “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people.” The first soldier pauses, offering a dim corrective. “Hearts and minds.” The other voice replies, “Yeah, we’ll take their hearts and we’ll take their minds.” War is political by its very nature, both the grand gestures that lead tens of thousands of troops into harsh terrain and the actions of individual soldiers. When the Second Platoon whoops in celebration after a Taliban combatant is gunned down, we can understand their relief, but the feeling is also accompanied by a lurch in the stomach, as we know that someone has just been killed, and that this death been caught, in some form, on tape.
The enemy in Restrepo, most often called “the bad guy,” is almost entirely unseen, though there is one harrowing instance in which five locals, including several children, are shown to have suffered serious injuries or are dead. The focus on the implicit “good guys,” however, means that the experience of the occupied population is swept aside. The language barrier between the soldiers and the locals is more than a metaphor; the two groups fundamentally don’t understand each other, and an initially comical scene involving a “cow incident” digresses into a bureaucratic nightmare as one soldier tries to call in a few hundred dollars to pay for an accidental bovine death. Beyond the futility of this moment, one wonders whether compensation is even attempted for the loss of human life. As Jennifer Terry, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has written extensively on war and media, notes, “bracketing the experience of others contributes to the myopia that got us into the war in the first place.”
Junger and Hetherington emphasize the absurdity of war without going so far as to critique it; though the film is structured around the fortification of Outpost Restrepo, the events that happen during the deployment aren’t synthesized. Instead the raids, ambushes, and idle spaces make the film oddly formless, all of it underscored by a vague and persistent tension. When Captain Kearney recounts the group’s key milestones, they’re made up of dates on which other soldiers have died. Instead of politics, the film presents the men as being preoccupied with something more urgent, the constant negotiation with death. In War, Junger calls this “combat fog,” expressed in Restrepo through rapid handheld pans, gunshots heard from all sides, and the timbre of confused, frightened voices. As one soldier admits of one terrified night in the Korengal, “it started getting dark and the monkeys were howling, and I thought they were Taliban. And I thought, shit, they’re close.” The film bears the sense that anything can happen at any time, that the end is both near and impossibly far away.
Yet through the fog, we should expect some clarity. While Restrepo is undoubtedly an important document, it may be too close to the experience of combat to adequately comment on the experience of this war. While I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of insightful war films being made in the midst of conflict, there’s a certain lucidity that comes with distance. As with The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) or The Fog of War (2003), it sometimes takes decades for the truth to emerge, only once the dust has settled. In time, Restrepo might be one piece of a much bigger, and far more complicated picture, one that not only illuminates history but also offers the possibility for a different kind of future.
Junger and Hetherington’s dedication to these men is admirable, and it’s clear they’ve been accepted into this band of brothers. Yet it’s an experience that remains paradoxically untouchable, no matter how close the camera gets. Or so Restrepo would have us believe. Like the place these men inhabit for a couple of years, or the soldier after which the film is named, we know it only at a distance, on a screen, through men that we might sympathize with, admire, and even recognize as part of our own families. Yet as it’s presented, the burden of their time in the Valley of Death is theirs alone, impenetrable, beyond our understanding, and more importantly, beyond reproach.