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‘Korengal’ movie review

Second Platoon soldiers on patrol in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. The documentary “Korengal” revisits the same troops from 2011’s “Restrepo” who have bonded in war. (Outpost Films)

According to “Korengal’s” press kit, the documentary picks up “where ‘Restrepo’ left off.”

Yet the new film — a flawed but intriguing companion piece to the 2011 Oscar nominated documentary profiling a group of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — is more retread than sequel. Not only does it redeploy interviews with the very same soldiers seen in the first film, but it also features field footage from the same period (a 15-month tour of duty in 2007 and 2008) and from the same location (a remote and dangerous outpost nicknamed “Restrepo,” after slain Army medic Juan “Doc” Restrepo).

“Korengal,” in other words, feels more like outtakes from “Restrepo” than an update to it.

That said, “Korengal” director Sebastian Junger — whose “Restrepo” co-director, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, was killed while covering the 2011 Libyan civil war — doesn’t go over the exact same ground that the filmmakers covered in the first film. As suggested by the new film’s title, which refers to the valley where Outpost Restrepo was located, “Korengal” zooms out from the first film’s granular focus on the day-to-day life of the modern warrior, taking a broader, bigger-picture approach to life during wartime.

If “Restrepo” was interested in the conduct of battle — both its boredom and its bloodshed — “Korengal” is interested in such larger questions as the nature of morality and bravery. One soldier wonders aloud whether God might be angry with him for some of the things he has done.

There is, of course, some overlap between the two films, leading to a sense, at times, that “Korengal” is a making-of movie. If any “Restrepo” viewers were curious about how soldiers stationed on an Afghan mountaintop powered laptops, hand-held gaming devices and other electronics, “Korengal” shows the delivery, via army helicopter, of a giant generator.

The new movie, then, is both less and more detail-oriented than “Restrepo,” breaking down even further some of the earlier film’s technical obsessions — such as the operation and taxonomy of guns — while simultaneously pulling back to muse on life’s grand conundrums.

“Restrepo” felt like the story of how boys become men. “Korengal” feels like the story of how strangers become family.

Junger suggests that it’s a brotherhood bound together by the ways in which its members are, perhaps irrevocably, damaged. Although the United States pulled out of the Korengal Valley in 2010, leaving unanswered the question of whether it accomplished its objectives, more than one soldier in “Korengal” says he would happily return there if he could.

The implication of those bizarre statements is clear: It isn’t that Korengal was such a paradise; though beautiful, it was, as many point out, a kind of living hell. But surviving war — which requires not just cheating death, but delivering it — can sometimes ruin you for anything else.

★ ★ ½

R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains coarse language, brief nudity and shooting.
90 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.



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