The seemingly endless dual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have inspired a legion of war documentaries in recent years, but the new Restrepo — which won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary feature at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — probably belongs in the top tier. If the Iraq-focused No End in Sight is the best, most insightful, and most sobering depiction of civilian leadership and its discontents, then the Afghanistan-based Restrepo gets closest to the day-to-day lives of soldiers on the frontlines.
The odd title is a reference to young soldier Juan "Doc" Restrepo and to the makeshift mountain fort that bears his name soon after he's killed in action. The film was made by journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who shot 150 hours of video footage over the course of the 15-month deployment of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, who were stationed in the rocky Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold that we're told is "one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military."
Junger and Hetherington's proximity yields a depiction of war as the mix of boredom and action you expect. The action is exhilarating and terrifying to the soldiers onscreen, but the you-are-there camerawork sometimes suffers: When the bullets start flying, things get shaky and indistinct, and sometimes the lens ends up pointed straight at the ground as the cameraman, presumably, flees for cover. Better to stay alive than get the shot. Though sometimes they do, indeed, get the shot: We see a bullet ricochet off the gravel right in front of the camera and right in front of a soldier's foot. More disturbingly, we see one soldier break down moments after a friend is killed in action.
It's compelling stuff, but if you think even this verité footage makes you feel like you're there, then you're fooling yourself. The danger and anxiety can be appreciated but not really felt. Instead, the elements that come through most clearly are the personalities of the soldiers and the daily routines of deployment when the bullets aren't flying. We see iron-jawed captain Dan Kearney's earnest but seemingly ineffectual attempts to negotiate with the skeptical local Afghan elders. (In Restrepo, it seems like everyone in Afghanistan is 70 years old with a ZZ Top beard.) We see soldiers burning their poop (no, really), going over tactics using toy soldiers in the dust, horsing around with the camp cook ("He's a beautiful man. I'd fuck him back in the States."), and dealing with AWOL cattle that wander into camp.
We also see the men change. Restrepo opens with footage of three soldiers — including Doc Restrepo — on the way to their deployment. Wearing sunglasses, joking with smiles and confidence. Interspersed throughout and lined up at the end are tightly framed talking-head interviews with the soldiers who made it through, filmed in Italy immediately after leaving Afghanistan. The juxtaposition of before and after suggests that much more that 15 months of living went into that deployment.
Opening Friday, August 20th