Sticking to their guns: Reviews of documentaries 'Restrepo' and 'The Oath'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

In style and subject matter, "Restrepo" and "The Oath" could not be more different. "Restrepo," a documentary by embedded journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, takes place in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008, when the area was known as the deadliest place in the war zone. With no narration and up-close, vérité camerawork, "Restrepo" plunges viewers into the urgent, sometimes incoherent world of a platoon whose mission is to build an outpost on a remote outcropping, where they're vulnerable to ambushes and sniper attacks.

"The Oath," by Laura Poitras, takes place conceptually, if not geographically, right next door. A double portrait of a Yemeni taxi driver named Abu Jandal and Guantanamo detainee Salim Hamdan, it's an altogether more formal affair than "Restrepo," structured like a thriller with expert editing and a gorgeous score featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw. And yet both films leave viewers with a confounding lack of resolution, their indeterminacy uncannily mirroring a time when the Afghanistan conflict, the fate of Guantanamo and America's entire post-9/11 posture still adamantly resist closure.

"The Oath" opens with the sounds of Hamdan being interrogated in Afghanistan in 2001, where he was taken prisoner during the U.S. invasion, then subsequently moved to Guantanamo. While Hamdan awaits his fate, Poitras catches up with Abu Jandal, who turns out to be Hamdan's brother-in-law and brother-in-arms, the two having joined al-Qaeda together in 1996. In interviews with Abu Jandal at home and driving his cab through the winding streets of Sanaa, Poitras tantalizes viewers with an up-close-and-personal portrait of a real-life jihadist. A tutor of young men interested in jihad, Abu Jandal lets his young son switch the TV channel from news reports of a suicide bombing to a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. Later, he admits that "Westerners are infidels but they make things with integrity and conscience. Our goods are made by sons of dogs and cheaters."

Still, for its implicit promise to answer the most elemental questions about terrorists' motivations and modes of operation, many of "The Oath's" central questions remain unanswered. Abu Jandal's commitment to jihad never comes into cogent focus. And Hamdan, whose case eventually reached the Supreme Court, remains off-screen. Too often, the film bears the marks of a director who has made the most of material that, while undoubtedly intimate, still suffers from some gaping holes. (Viewers are never privy to Abu Jandal and Hamdan's reunion, for example, because Hamdan did not want to be filmed.)

What's more, Poitras never plumbs the potential in Hamdan's U.S. military lawyer, Charles Swift, who took an oath of his own that he eventually came to feel was being violated by his own government. That fascinating contradiction is relatively lost in a swirl of information that, despite Poitras's gift for taut structure and atmospherics, never becomes a story. "The Oath" has the benefit of the What, Who, When and Where, but it never quite plumbs the issue of Why.

"Why" never comes into play in "Restrepo," either, but that's purely by design in a film whose express purpose is to avoid editorialization. Junger (who was reporting for Vanity Fair) and Hetherington (ABC News) simply wanted viewers to get a boots-on-the-ground view of the conflict, with no larger philosophical or political explanations. The result is an absorbing glimpse of the tedium, excitement, physical strain and psychic toll of war, where guys barely out of their teens are commanded to take on incomprehensible burdens.

The 15 men who build the outpost -- named Restrepo after a fallen comrade -- emerge as likable, even sensitive, characters, especially the baby-faced staff sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin, who sends pen-and-ink drawings home and who steadfastly refuses to tell his mother the truth of what he's experienced in Afghanistan. Later, when one of the men describes building Restrepo as "the single most important event in Korengal" during their year there, his words ring both haunting and hollow, considering that the United States pulled out of the valley less than two years later.

The immersive sensibility of "Restrepo" has been compared to last year's Iraq war film "The Hurt Locker," and it shares that film's admiration for soldiers and their reluctance to second-guess why they are where they are. "Political beliefs," Junger and Hetherington say in the film's press notes, "can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality."

Well, not exactly -- even a film as spontaneous and unvarnished as "Restrepo" is subject to framing, editing and shaping by its authors. But the filmmakers are correct that their in-the-context-of-no-context version of reality resists easy compartmentalization by pro-war or antiwar camps. As Georges Clemenceau famously said at Versailles in 1919, "It is what it is." What it means and what we should do about it are for the audience to decide.

The Oath


(96 minutes, in English and Arabic with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is unrated. It contains nothing objectionable. Director Laura Poitras and Andrea Prasow, senior counsel of Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program, will answer questions after Friday's 8 p.m. screening.



(94 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity, including some descriptions of violence.

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