By Jonathan Kiefer
Like casualties, war movies keep mounting.
Now here’s Restrepo, for which square-jawed, thrill-addicted journalistic-T rex Sebastian Junger and fellow war-zone regular Tim Hetherington embedded among a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s "deadliest place on Earth," the Korengal Valley. While they were there, people got hurt and killed—mostly Afghanis, but some Americans, too—and Vanity Fair and ABC News got fresh reports about it.
The film is an elaboration of sorts, although noteworthy for its discreet refusal to elaborate. It has been shorn of context or comment, and approximates the apolitical, anthropological detachment of cinema-verité style. It’s not so much an old-fashioned idea of objectivity, as faith in the purity of borne witness. Aside from a handful of after-the-fact interviews with the survivors, the film is a distillation of the experience of being there on the ground. An almost claustrophobically narrow focus is partly the point.
In doing so, Junger, of The Perfect Storm fame, somehow makes a posture out of not having a stance. He also has written War, a book about this experience, and there’s something contradictory and unsettling about his impulse to strip everything down to a basic essence while also rolling it out across multiple media platforms. Then again, there’s something contradictory and unsettling about making war.
Restrepo takes its name from both the platoon’s felled medic and the frequently besieged outpost that his brothers in arms established in his memory. It begins with amateur video of the eponymous 20-year-old private drunkenly goofing off with his buddies en route to deployment. More than once, with enthusiasm, he shouts, “We’re goin’ to war!” Kind of a yahoo, you might think, if you didn’t already feel queasy from the realization that you won’t have a chance to get to know him better. Later, another guy says there’s no better high than being in a firefight, and likens it to being on crack. Then he’s asked how he’ll ever fit back into civilian life. “I have no idea,” he replies.
The men take fire just about every day. They endure what all warriors endure: terror, absurdity, boredom, strategy, work, drudgery, valor, violence.
“There is the sense they’re fighting for each other more than for ideology,” Roger Ebert has observed of Restrepo. The observation rouses our admiration for the men, our sense of honor, our grief. But it also reminds us that a war doesn’t even need an ideology; it just needs men who’ll kill for each other.
Eventually, Restrepo explains, by way of brief epilogue, that American forces gave up on the Korengal and withdrew entirely. This seems pointless, you might think—this movie, this war, all movies, all wars.
Read SFR's interview with Tim Hetherington