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Restrepo (2010)

February 3, 2011

 
produced & directed by: Tim Hetherington & Sebastion Junger

rated R (for language throughout including some descriptions of violence)

93 min.

U.S. release date:  June 25, 2010

DVD/Bluray release date: 12-07-11 (currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly)

   

Not all war or combat movies are about war or combat. Some focus on the event leading up to war while others study the effect on the human psyche upon returning home. Last year, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture “The Hurt Locker” combined several intense elements, and confirmed that the best war films are the ones in which the audience is immersed in the action.  The closer a film on war can come to reality, actually putting you both the psyche of the soldier and their environment, the more heightened and in tune our senses will be to the actual experience. The compelling and absorbing documentary  “Restrepo” is such a film.
 
Actually, “Restrepo” is a doc that comes closest to reality because it is reality. The film covers a year in which American journalist Sebastian Junger (making his directorial debut) and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington took an assignment for Vanity Fair in Afghanistan. It involved them chronicling the lives of a platoon of American soldiers from June 2007 to June 2008, in the Korengal Valley, which is renowned as a deadly target. So deadly, in fact, that CNN called it “the deadliest place on earth” while the soldiers dubbed it “the valley of death”.
 
 
 
 
 
 

This mountainous area is filled with many hidden Taliban soldiers who know the land well, as well as indigenous folk, many who try to cooperate with American troops, living quietly amid treacherous terrain. The men we spend time with belong to Second Platoon, Battle Company, who were sent into the region with the goal of establishing a post in an unpredictable area. Led by Captain Dan Kearney, the platoon named their base of operations “Restrepo,” after a beloved medic killed early in the mission. The understandably shaken but determined unit spends the next fifteen months struggling to persevere through the valley, while cameras capture their frustration, the violence around them, and the camaraderie that keeps them sane.
 

Restrepo (the soldier)  is shown in the opening moments of the documentary through video he shot himself. He’s seen joking with this buddies, turning the camera on himself at one point, repeating, “We’re going to war, we’re going to war, we’re going to war” as if he just won the Super Bowl. The fact that he doesn’t survive and that his fellow soldiers name their outpost after him, makes that footage (which is revisited toward the end of the film), quite poignant.

 
It’s that kind of footage that makes it clear this is not a film preaching a message about why we shouldn’t be there. It’s the first of many scenes that strip away all that and put a face to a name or title, which serves as confirmation to viewers that these are men you might relate to or know.  Junger (who expanded on these events and more in his best-selling book, War) and Hetherington gives us amazing scenes, captured during their embedded time with the soldiers, but their focus is to allow us to see these men at play, in combat, and  trying to determine what to do next. Their approach is simple and straightforward, since they are knowingly aware the material alone will command enough interest.
 
  
 

  

 
 
“Restrepo” benefits from being narration free and excels when the soldiers to talk to the audience. Whether the survivors reflect on their experience in Afghanistan in a one-on-one format or when the camera captures a moment of reflection at Restrepo, one comes through more than anything are their voices and emotions. We’ve seen soldiers dealing with the harsh reality of war before by partying and playing video games during down time, but I haven’t seen a doc that shows military heads sitting down with villagers in an attempt to clearly communicate their intent. Seeing these men in a variety of situations adds a more authentic and real look at a tour of duty in the Middle East.  
 
The height of the film’s intensity can be found during “Operation Rock Avalanche,” which takes place at about midpoint through our journey. This mission calls for the platoon to leave Restrepo and make their way through the valley, knowing that Taliban forces lie ahead. They know not all of them will return and they knew that was a possibility when they signed up. That doesn’t make them (and us) less on edge about the whole maneuver. Junger and Hetherington need not employ fancy camera work during this operation, because the anxiety of it all is obvious and unforgettable. 

 

Since the current war (or wars) started, there have been several films made about what’s happening over there. Some have been based on true events while others were fictional accounts of the effects of combat both there and back home. While many of those films were well-done, few of them did well. There’s several theories on that, many think that since Americans have been inundated by media coverage that they opted out of seeing films on such a subject. Some steered clear of them in order to evade any political commentary they thought Hollywood might try to ram down their throats. None of that is the case here.
 
This is simply a stark look at the lives of soldiers, what they must endure, how they die and how they survive. No agenda or perspective slant, except to capture these specific men and at this specific place. Often difficult to watch, “Restrepo” is that needed examination of courageous men that is both immersive and reflective.
 
 
RATING:  ****
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
4 Comments leave one →
  1. april tierney permalink
    February 3, 2011 9:13 am

    i loved this film. powerful and poignant, thought provoking and enlightening. from the get-go
    it reaches out, grabs you and pulls you in. it was interesting how quickly i felt connected. you immediately begin to care about what happens to these soldiers. like a book i could not put down, i recommend it to everyone i meet.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 3, 2011 10:34 am

      The many people I have recommended it to knew nothing about it. So, word of mouth is essential. Hopefully, with its recent Oscar nomination, the film will gain more attention.

  2. Brian Wisniewski permalink
    February 14, 2011 12:50 pm

    I saw this about a month or so ago and thought it was an excellent piece of work. Compelling and visceral every step of the way. One correction though, the men are not “soldiers” they are Marines. Marines are never to be referred to as soldiers. I won’t get into the why but you will immediately lose any credibility with any Marine by referring to them as a soldier.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 14, 2011 1:49 pm

      Thanks for the correction Brian, but I don’t feel it’s necessary here since it is clear I was reviewing the film with a limited military knowledge. At no point in the review do I declare otherwise nor do I seek to earn any credentials. The goal is to tell the film as I saw it. Sure, it’s important to get the facts right but even if I don’t (which will happen), the film did its job. For me, I saw past what title or branch of armed forces this platoon was and instead saw them as brave, scared and courageous men. That was enough for me. One only has to take what he or she sees in a film and draw upon what resonates most.

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