War: What is it good for?
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 9, 2010
The candid and riveting documentary "Restrepo," by journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, joins a burgeoning genre of films that adamantly rejects context in the service of immersive immediacy. Like a nonfictional counterpart to "The Hurt Locker," this documentary plunges viewers into the life of a military platoon whose mission, over the course of their year-long deployment, takes on a weirdly dual nature.
On one hand, the soldiers' aim is simple and specific: to build an outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan's most dangerous territory. But as "Restrepo" unfolds over the unit's hitch, the larger strategic goal becomes vague, elusive and finally downright abstract. Despite the filmmakers' obvious sympathy for the troops and their aversion to making larger political points, "Restrepo" leaves viewers in a philosophical void, made all the more grim in knowing that the United States would pull out of Korengal just two years after the film was made, admitting that the occupation had been futile.
That recent history hangs over "Restrepo" like a pall as the 15-man platoon makes its way through Korengal's verdant but deadly passes, dodging incoming Taliban bullets as the soldiers build the outpost they will name Restrepo, after a medic who had been killed in action. Chatting idly through periods of boredom and heat, meeting with local tribesmen in weekly "shuras," the men -- boys, really -- don't reveal any profound truths about war. When the team comes under attack and someone is killed, viewers see one paragon of macho bravery keen like a baby.
During one endearing interlude, they break out into a song-and-dance number that anticipates the famous "Telephone" video that went viral in May. The film's most fascinating character, the sweet-natured Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin, sends sensitive pen-and-ink drawings home to his pacifist mother, from whom he keeps the truth of what he sees and survives.
The men of "Restrepo" are capable of honor, contempt, hubris and a disarming lack of self-consciousness. But the film doesn't dwell on what they think or feel as much as what they do. As one soldier puts it, "We dig, we get shot at, we shoot back, we dig again." In retrospective interviews, the filmmakers discover some of the reasons the guys enlisted, but one of them puts it best when he compares getting shot at to crack cocaine. "Like no other high," he says. Later, when a staff sergeant recalls the loss of a buddy during the ambush, he doesn't cry or break down. He "loses his train of thought," which is even more eloquent and emotionally devastating.
When "Restrepo" has done its time, what have we learned? No grand lessons -- certainly nothing of clarity about the end game in Afghanistan -- just a sliver of insight about what's being asked of the men and women behind our yellow-ribbon car magnets. Why they're being asked is left for us to decide.
Contains profanity throughout, including descriptions of violence.