Restrepo is a war documentary with no political agendas, hidden policies or ideological assumptions driving its narrative construction. It’s simply an attempt to capture the harshest deployment in the Afghanistan. In an industry trying to grasp at some kind of meaningful portrayal of America’s current war, Restrepo simply documents what happens and leaves it to the audience to experience.
Stationed in the Korangal Valley with the Second Platoon, B Company of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington capture what has been called the most dangerous place on earth. As the solders relate the daily struggle of living in C.P. Restrepo, the almost daily attacks against a faceless foe, and the constant attempts to work with the local population, the complexity of their assignment grows ever larger.
And while it’s the action that punctuates the opening of the film, the film is just as preoccupied in capturing the long hours of waiting, the stillness that often looms before the attack and the silence that puts soldiers on edge. This makes the film a riveting watch as many moments are tense, an invisible threat looms up the mountains. As the soldiers put it: it’s not a matter of if the enemy will strike, but when.
When the big engagement comes, it defies traditional documentation. There simply isn’t a way to capture what happens. The soldiers must relate their story, piece it together through multiple engagements, supposition and the accounts of several participants. The small bit of footage shone is hectic and only able to capture the aftermath. While such a direct telling might seem dull and dense, it proves one of the most fascinating and powerful moments of the film.
This is because the film has done a great job of capturing what it was like for these me, the simple monotony of the day, to the point that there is an emotional investment in these people. When the talking heads appear, one can read more than is said in ever face, the pain and trauma endlessly etched through each feigned smile and troubled gaze. There’s a professionalism to it, the air of a soldier’s stoic report, but the truth is clearly there.
In modern times, it has become fashionable to criticize military training and war for dehumanizing people, but Restrepo stumbles upon a different conclusion. While films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon express the soldier’s loss of identity, Restrepo shows these soldiers at an utter loss to comprehend the deaths of their comrades, strong men are reduced to tears at the sight of one of their fallen comrades. One man even says the loss of a dear friend helped him appreciate his life more.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be shocking. The men spend their hours off patrol acting like a gang of kids, playing loud music, wrestling and pulling pranks. It’s a tight-knit community, perhaps one of the tightest. Any group of people that must daily trust one another for their survival is likely to create a bond far stronger than any civilian bond. Their off hours seem similar to the behavior of an average college group back home.
At the end of Restrepo, there isn’t much of a conclusion. The soldier’s campaign has ended, they’ve headed home, but the war still rages. There’s too much complexity, nuance and struggle to hope that any sort of meaningful conclusion can be made in a few hours. Instead, it’s a film that can help us appreciate all the more the life we have and perhaps understand better the lives of others struggling through something far harder than our measly troubles.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing