Wednesday, January 05, 2011


Restrepo (2010) is a documentary made by Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington about the U. S. military outpost in Afghanistan that Junger wrote about in his 2010 book War. The film is not an adaptation of the book. Instead it is a treatment of the same material. Junger and Hetherington filmed the documentary during their 14 months with the soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan. The soldiers build from scratch a remote mountain outpost.

The outpost is named for a medic in the unit killed in an attack by Taliban soldiers. We see him, PFC. Juan Restrepo, early in the film on a bus with his fellow soldiers, talking about the war and his love of life. He is a looming presence throughout the film. His death leaves everyone shaken.

The outpost is roughhewn, dug out of the dirt on a mountain top. It offers little comfort. Large concrete blocks and bags filled with cement protect against incoming rounds. The building where the soldiers live is more like a cave than a military barracks. A small makeshift lookout tower provides an overview of the valley below. The troops are constantly working, patrolling, climbing up and down the trails along the mountainside. Grueling, hard, difficult, lonely, monotonous—these words barely begin to describe their daily lives.

Almost all the soldiers are in their early 20s. They look like students in one of my classes. As their time in Restrepo progresses, they change and age. Their once fresh and innocent faces by the end of their assignment are marked by everything that has happened—some soldiers seem stronger, more mature. Others seem shaken to the core.

More than anything else about the film, the eyes and faces of these men struck me—their expressions, fear, humor, tension, uncertainty, anguish, and other emotions. We learn more about the experience of war for these soldiers through their eyes and expressions than through any statements they make or actions they take part in.

Late in the film, another member of the platoon is killed during an encounter with Taliban soldiers. One of his friends comes across his body and collapses in grief and hysterical weeping. No scene in any war film I have seen is so disturbing and affecting. These soldiers suffer grievously when their friends die or are injured. A strong comradeship is evident throughout the men of the Second Platoon. The movie makes their feelings for one another clear, and when a death occurs, their suffering is real, not an actor’s performance.

Restrepo has a raw and unprocessed quality. Much of the camera work is shaky and fluid—the cameras aren’t mounted on pulleys or trestles. When Hetherington runs behind a group of soldiers he carries the camera with him, and it shows exactly what they encounter. In the scene where they find their dead comrade, the impact is wrenching. There’s no narration in the film. It’s loosely structured in chronological order, following the men of the Second Platoon from their arrival at the military outpost to the day of their departure. Obviously, through editing and selection from the hundreds of hours of film Hetherington shot, the film does make its statement—it’s not so much a statement about the Afghani war as it is about the experiences these young men go through. Interviews with various members of the unit, made after their tour of duty ends, are interspersed through the film. The soldiers talk about what it was like to fight in battle, the conditions of their existence, the deaths of their friends.

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