In the summer of 2007, two Western journalists dug in with a platoon of American soldiers on a 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley, a strategic outpost near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. The mountainous region was infested with Taliban fighters and possibly was also used by Al Qaeda leaders as a base of operations. On assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger also shot 150 hours of footage documenting life at the hair-raisingly exposed U.S. Army station.
Hetherington, a photographer who also reported from behind rebel lines in the Liberian civil war, and Junger, best known for the book that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm, could hardly be described as risk-averse. If that leads you to expect a combat-happy action doc along the lines of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s 2004 Gunner Palace, you’ll be disappointed. Amid a glut of amped nonfiction films about the United States at war in the Middle East, Restrepo—which won the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year—raises its voice by lowering it. Stripped almost bare of mood music, input from experts or Army poobahs, this hyper-vérité film belongs to the soldiers of the Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, whose daily routines it follows as they hole up in a valley that turns them into, as one of them puts it, “fish in a barrel” for Taliban snipers.
The warrior drama unfolds organically, without artificial suspense. We know from the outset that the Restrepo outpost is named for a popular medic who was killed early in his tour of duty. The film moves to the rhythms of a combat soldier’s life in the field, which consists of long periods of unspeakable tedium interrupted by the confused mayhem of battle with an unseen enemy. Were it not punctuated with post-deployment testimony from the surviving soldiers back at their base in Italy, Restrepo would unfold almost without formal structure.
The interviews are pretty much what you’d expect—boys with round features not yet fully formed, trying to comprehend the yawning gap between what they were led to expect and the incoherent mess in which they find themselves. Some are filled with apprehension about how they’ll cope when they get home; others shed tears for their fallen comrades. Like most ground-level troops, they know and speculate little about the war’s progress, still less about the reasons for their country’s involvement.
Yet they’re far from stupid. Back at the encampment, they prove a likable, reflective bunch. One fondly relishes the irony that his mother was “a fucking hippie” who never allowed her son to play with guns or watch violent movies. Another amiably answers inane questions from a comrade about his recent leave while busily reloading his machine gun for a fresh round of fire. Their boisterously carnal physicality is observed without comment.
If Restrepo shares the sympathy for its raw young subjects that marks most current films about the U.S. military abroad (Coming Home aside, such empathy was unimaginable during the Vietnam War), it is neither romantic nor sentimental about the impossibly contradictory tasks with which these men have been charged, and the sometimes clueless ways in which they try to maintain good relations with local communities even as they bomb the crap out of their villages. There’s a M*A*S*H-like black comedy in the unit’s heedless slaughter and barbecue of a villager’s cow and the haggling with elders about whether to recompense them in money or in kind. At the weekly meeting between the captain and the village elders, the camera settles on an old man with a bright red henna’d beard, trying to figure out how to push a straw through a plastic juice bag brought by his visitors, while the absurdly young platoon captain, who seems more interested in badmouthing his predecessor than in diplomacy, drones on through an interpreter.
Talk about the fog of war: One soldier collapses into terrified hysteria when a colleague is mortally wounded. Others calm him with such courage and dignity that you want to cry, at least until you witness the lust for revenge that sweeps over the platoon when a total of 10 men go down. When, in a rare intervention, a voice from off-screen quietly asks an adrenaline-stoked warrior how he will adjust to civilian life, he replies distractedly, “I have no idea.” Right now, he couldn’t care less. Later, we now know, it will matter terribly.