Monday, January 31, 2011

Death at a Funeral (both versions)

Death at a Funeral (2007; dir. Frank Oz) is a British madcap comedy about a funeral where almost everything conceivable goes wrong. It reminds me of some of the Peter Sellers comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, of the Fawlty Towers television series (1975, 1979), and of old Hollywood comedies such as and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966). Death at a Funeral is fairly well focused, so it almost succeeds in keeping the action within rein. More controlled than some of the aforementioned predecessors, it is prevailingly silly. Characters are well drawn caricatures. At the center of the film are two brothers—one a successful novelist who can’t seem to find the funds to help pay funeral expenses for their father. His brother remained at home with his aging parents, struggles to make ends meet, and is pressured by his wife about finding a place to live now that his father is dead. The successful novelist is really fairly vapid, while his brother has more substance than he knows. There is mordant gallows humor aplenty. No one in the film escapes the numerous satiric jabs it levels: old men, the dead man himself, his wife, the married and unmarried, the minister performing the funeral, a man given the wrong bottle of pills, an opportunistic dwarf. Although the increasingly zany hijinks follow a well-worn slapstick pattern, building towards a climactic moment on the roof of the family home, the film is hilarious and entirely satisfying.

Using almost exactly the same screenplay and shooting script, and nearly identical to the 2006 film on a scene-by-scene basis, the 2010 version of Death at a Funeral (Neil Labute) features a mostly African American cast, with a few exceptions. Danny Glover, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence play the primary characters, with assistance from a generally excellent group of supporting actors. Each actor brings his or her distinctive spin to the film (in particular Glover and Morgan). There are a few topical references to the United States, to basketball, to African American issues, but this is not really an African American film. It’s still basically a British madcap comedy. Even the house and surrounding grounds where the story takes place seems the same. One actor, Peter Dinklage, the dwarf, plays the same role in both films—he’s a fine actor, but just for the sake of spreading the joy around, couldn’t the director have found someone else to play his part in the second film?

Clearly, someone saw money potential in the script used for the original film. But someone also didn’t see money to be made in hiring a new screenwriter to rework the original script. (The script has been mildly revised to allow for American and African American language usage—but even with those differences the line-by-line dialogue is very close in both versions). The assumption must have been as follows: this British film with mainly unknown actors is funny. In fact it’s hilarious. But it doesn’t have any actors in it American audiences recognize. So, hey, why not completely reshoot the film with popular actors and aim it towards a young and African American audience—the sort of audience that would attend a Tyler Perry film--and do a major publicity campaign?—that will make money.

The American version of the film is entertaining and funny. So is the British version. The British version works better because the comedy and the madcap antics seem more naturally attuned to the talents and language and setting of the actors. The American version is neither stilted nor forced, but it does seem contrived. And it’s difficult not to conclude that the only reason for its existence as a filmic replication of the 2006 original is the desire for filthy lucre.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Get Him to the Greek

Judd Apatow is producing and often directing a growing list of films aimed at teens and young adults. The members of each generation have their own interests and preferences, codes and values, and they are reflected in the films they watch. Apatow’s films are funny, sometimes witty, usually raunchy, occasionally heartwarming, and the latter emotion in some way is meant to excuse the raunch. I am hesitant to make the following statement, for fear of being labeled an old kludge, but the entertainment offered in Get Him to the Greek (2010; dir. Nicholas Stoller; produced by Apatow) reflects the long, slow decline in popular films since the 1970s.

Get Him to the Greek gave me a lot of chuckles and a few belly laughs. But I am a cheap date. A young man who wants to find a place in the music business (Jonah Hill) is assigned to escort from England to Los Angeles a drug-addled, recently divorced, basket case of a rock star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) for a comeback concert at the Greek Theatre. Hijinks ensue, fairly silly and lewd, and entertaining. In the end, we discover that Brand is only a lonely artist who needs a friend. Jonah Hill’s improbable character finds his place in the music world, and all is good. The film is hollow. From the beginning the odor of the formula permeates—an overly ambitious hero too willing to compromise himself for the job he wants learns what’s really important in life. Hill and Brand merely go through the motions of filling in the formula. Hill plays a character much like he has always played (just a little older) while Brand plays a version of himself. Brand is fun to watch, but he doesn’t seem to have much range or depth.

Apatow and followers have learned that scatology, over-indulgence, drug jokes, and various forms of kinky sex (or the promise thereof) are what the demographic this film is aimed at wants. They’ve also learned that if the end of such a film tacks on a moralistic ending, one in which the drunken sot of a rock star discovers his need for friendship, and the music company lackey escorting him across the continent realizes his selfishness, then they will be praised for their refined perspective.

Were the films I saw when I was twenty on the same level as this one? When they are thirty years older, will the audience members for Get Him to the Greek rank this film and The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Superbad in the same category as Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Graduate?

Entropy is one diagnosis.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tron: Legacy

Failure of imagination might be a term that assumes too much as applied to Tron: Legacy (2010; dir. Joseph Kosinski). This sequel to the 1982 film, itself the product of failed imagination, is enjoyable if bright colors, swift movements, and loud noise entrance you. Probably, in an altered state, one might find this film profound and a religious experience. In the rational but also hopeful state in which I viewed this film, it was an ordeal. Midway through, I muttered to my son (yes, this was a father-son bonding experience) that Tron: Legacy was far worse than I could have imagined. Straining for the right expression to say just what I meant, I myself suffered a failure of imagination.

Tron works on the premise that a computer programmer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) can enter the virtual world of a video game he has created and interact with the subprograms that reside there. The subprograms appear to him as people. He somehow undertakes to work towards the creation of a perfect world, and in the process a “race” of superior beings—they are like the elves of Tolkien, or Milton’s angels. But some of the other programs revolt, kill all the angels, and force Flynn into hiding. He engages in a long-running stand-off with his alter-ego Clu, a computer program replication of himself, which is not himself. Anyway, Flynn is trapped for twenty-one years in the virtual world. Then, his son from the real world appears, intent on his rescue.

Most fantasies establish and adhere to their own laws, their own operating procedures. They operate according to an underlying logic. Above and beneath Tron, I think, is no logic at all. With some of the worst dialogue in recent years (example: “In there is a new world! In there is our future! In there is our destiny!”), with impressive digital animation (Bridges appears as two versions of himself, one old and the other young), with a narrative worthy of an old Lost in Space episode, or maybe of the “Space Hippies” episode of the original Star Trek television series, with borrowings from The Matrix and Buddhism and The Wrath of Khan Star Trek film, Tron blunders and flounders and whirls out of control (as if it were ever under control to begin with).

The low point comes in a scene where characters from the virtual world meet in a disco bar, drinking and dancing.

Only a role as impressive as Rooster Cogburn could compensate for Jeff Bridges’ appearance and performance in this one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Hallelujah (1929; dir. King Vidor) is the earliest sound-era film featuring an all-black cast I have encountered. Released in 1929, it is crudely made by current standards, with poor editing, acting, sound quality, and cinematography. By 1929 standards, however, it would have been close to state of the art. Hallelujah is about an African American cotton-farming family somewhere in the deep south, possibly Mississippi, since a town named Greenwood is mentioned. We see scenes of the family working happily in the cotton field and eating together at home. At the center of the film is a young man named Zeke. He is hard-working and responsible, but several scenes give us to know that he is full of sexual desire that is hard for him to repress. One day he and his younger brother take the cotton they have harvested to town and sell it for a hundred dollars. Zeke comes across a young woman, Chick, dancing before a crowd of men. He's attracted to her and doesn’t realize that she is probably a prostitute. When he tries to get her attention, she rebuffs him until she learns he has money. At a local honky-tonk, she connives with a gambler, probably her pimp, to convince Zeke to gamble his earnings. When he loses the money, he blames the gambler. A fight ensues, and Zeke accidentally shoots his brother to death. At his brother’s funeral, the guilt-stricken Zeke sees the light, becomes a peachier who begins touring the local countryside under the name of Zekial, preaching to the brethren. Apparently as a way of channeling his sexual urges, he also marries a young woman who lives with his family. But Chick tracks him down and after mocking him at an outdoor service she claims to be converted. Zeke is still attracted to her, and they run away together. Six months later she leaves with the gambler. Zeke realizes he's been duped and tracks the pimp down in a local swamp and kills him. Zeke goes to jail and, on release, returns home where his family awaits.

Hallelulah opens and closes with the iconic image of blacks toiling away happily in the cotton fields. They talk freely with each other, joking playfully, giving no sense that picking cotton in the hot summer fields is hard work. We’ve seen this image often in films of the 1930s and 40s—in So Red the Rose, Mississippi, Gone with the Wind, and Song of the South, for example. One might argue that because this film focuses exclusively on black characters, with white people nowhere in evidence, that its intent is to celebrate African American life. We see the family life, community socializing and worship, and much singing. We also see how Zeke and his family work hard and successfully at raising cotton and then taking it to market where they sell it for a good price.

Could Hallelujah be an early expression of respect and appreciation for African Americans?

That might be the intention, but not the result. The film carefully and inexorably undermines the positive image of independent black farmers and rich, hearty family gatherings by reifying all the basic racist stereotypical notions about African Americans expressed in the opening image. While Zeke can grow a field of cotton and bring it to harvest, lust and alcohol and poor judgment induce him to gamble it away. When he feels shame for his actions and becomes an evangelist, he is clearly impressed by the popularity he enjoys. Although his conversion seems sincere, the film treats his career as an evangelist with humor. However pious he might be, he’s easily lured away from a revival service by desire for Chick. The film seems to equate religious mania in African Americans with sexual desire, suggesting that Chick and Zeke can’t see the difference and can’t control their impulses. And after serving his time in the local penitentiary for the gambler’s murder, Zeke returns home to his family and to his wife Mattie—he’s welcomed with open arms and little hesitation, the suggestion being that he is just a man, a black man for all that, susceptible to temptation and passion, and therefore deserving of forgiveness. Chick is not much different in this regard than Zeke. She’s not only a woman—vulnerable to, as this film would have it, temptation and eager to lure men to sins of the flesh—but also a black woman, which in this film means weaker, more sensual, more corruptible still.

The temptations to which Zeke falls victim could as easily have brought down a white protagonist. But this film--with its African American cast that strives so fervently to present African American life--is making a general statement about the perceived qualities and defects of African American character. On the farm, working in the fields, eating and funning around with family and friends, African Americans are safe and carefree. In the city, the lures of temptation along with their naturally weak morals and strong passions will bring them down. No surprise, then, that the film ends with Zeke’s return home and with more images of the happy blacks in the fields picking cotton.

The two strongest actors in the film are Daniel Haynes as Zeke and Nina Mae McKinney as Chick. Haynes sings well. McKinney overacts, especially when she’s overcome with religious/sexual frenzy. Her primary trait is her eyes—which are unfortunately close to the bug eyes of the stereotype. A decade or two later, and certainly by the 1950s or 1960s, Haynes and McKinney might have had successful Hollywood careers, but Haynes appeared in only a few minor roles after this one, and McKinney played mostly minor parts until her last film in 1950.

While Hallelujah means to give a positive portrait of African-American life, the cultural and racial biases of its day limit its success.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Airships, by Barry Hannah

Barry Hannah's Airships (Knopf, 1978) bowled me over. These stories offer a remarkable alternative to the clean, precise, antiseptic short fiction that has proliferated since the 1970s in American letters. The typical Hannah story rambles. You often think it's going nowhere, or that it's lost track of where it was going, and then suddenly you realize it's right on target. Hannah’s typical persona is a middle- to lower-class Southern white man, possessed of the usual prejudices one would expect from rural areas of the 1960s and 70s. Hannah pays no homage to political niceties. His characters pretend not to be fond of black people, of Northerners, or of other people unlike themselves. It takes getting over.

Hannah's stories are the opposite of minimalist. They give the illusion of formlessness, of stream of consciousness, but although the unconscious may be a source of the stories, they are quite deliberate.

In subject these stories range from short brutal tales about murder (“Coming Close to Donna” and “Pete Resists the Man of His Old Room”) to Civil War stories somehow involving Gen. Jeb Stuart (“Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” and “Dragged Fighting from his Tomb”) to World War II stories (“Testimony of Pilot”) to Vietnam stories (“Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”) to apocalyptic science fiction (“Eating Wife and Friends”). Rarely have I read a story collection so varied in content. “Escape to Newark” is about a futuristic world so polluted and depleted of resources that everything is dying. Only the rich can afford to build rocket ships to escape. A woman abandons her husband to secure a place on a spaceship built by a former friend who selects his passengers much as he might choose whom to invite to a swank party. The conclusion is sudden and unexpected and entirely fitting. In “Water Liars” old men sit around fishing and telling stories to each other that are lies but that also dredge up deeper truths. In “Our Secret Home” a man who lives with his wife and disabled twin sister discovers why neighbors decline to attend his parties. “Return to Return” is about a brain-damaged former tennis champion and his admirers (it reminding me in ways of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral).

These narratives intermix contemporary America with traditional America, the modern with the postmodern, the real with the unreal. They deal with hillbillies, the era of Civil Rights, the problems of the modern world. They offer no solutions and even their diagnoses are typically unclear and not even to the point. Faulkner is an occasional echoing presence, but so too are Updike and Cheever and Roth.

Many of these stories seem told by characters whose own grip on reality is uncertain—psychopaths, hallucinators, the half-aware, the dispossessed, the grievously embittered and disappointed. They inhabit a world in which the real and unreal commingle, not in the way of the magical realists, but more in the way of trailer parks and starvation and Kafka.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

White Fang, by Jack London

Jack London’s problematic racial views are faintly evident in his short novel White Fang (1906) in his comments on the difference between pure and mixed breed wolves and dogs. Pure blood wolves hold entirely to the laws of nature, of the wild. They have pure instincts, cannot be lured into complacency by the wiles of men, they are pure predators. White Fang’s mother is a half breed, the product of the union between a wolf and a dog. Although London describes her in purely adulatory terms, it’s clear that her domesticated side distinguishes her from the pure bred wolves that run in the woods nearby. She is drawn to the fires of men.

There’s certain logic to London’s comments on the differences between pure-blood wolves and half-bloods. Interbreeding animals of different species can produce offspring who carry some of the weak traits of the parents as well as strong ones.

In his comments on human beings—especially on white men and Indians, and on men of good breeding as opposed to others less well bred--his racial views become clearer. The Indian men who look after White Fang after he joins their tribe with his mother treat him with cruelty. But White Fang looks up to them as “gods”—the word London uses to characterize how he regards them—as beings above and supreme to himself. But the white man who rescues him from Beauty Smith, a dog fighter, is clearly above and beyond any other men he has ever encountered. To White Fang, the man who comes to be the owner he grows to love is a “super god.” In this novel white men and clearly superior to Indians, and some white men, by dint of breeding or their innately moral natures or whatever, are clearly superior to all others. They are the super gods, the super men, the ubermensch.

London’s descriptions of the behavior of Indians are probably based on his own observations. He appears to know much about their ways of life, their diets and family habits and social habits. His descriptions are not for the most part condescending or negative. In fact, he treats Indians with far more respect than many other writers of his day. But when he compares them to white men, simply by the judgments he draws, his racial views are evident.

Of the books in American literature that exemplify in the most literal and straightforward fashion the meaning of naturalism, White Fang is among them. In telling the story of white fang’s first year as a pup, London makes clear the harshness of the natural world into which he is born. The pups born with him die of starvation during a famine. His father dies in a fight with a lynx. Wolves pursue and apparently kill two men lost in the wilderness. White Fang learns to kill prey to nourish himself. He learns to fight and defend himself against becoming prey. In his world, the fittest survive and the weak perish. London apparently knows his Darwin.

London makes White Fang out to be a product of heredity (breeding and interbreeding) and of environment. He refers to White Fang’s genetic makeup as “clay” but makes clear that environmental factors, what he has learned in his life, the influence of his encounters with people and other animals, mixes with clay to form his character.

Oddly, there is sentimentality here in this book about an animal. Many of the animals have names—some are given by men but others are not—who gives White Fang’s father the name One Eye, for example? London presumes to know what they think and feel and why they act as they do. He sometimes ascribes motives and logic to their thought. The ending of the novel seems particularly sentimental, which is not to say that I didn’t like it. Everyone wants a dog story to have a happy ending. But if London sought to make this story a purely naturalistic, Darwinian tale, he didn’t really succeed.

London writes with a spare and descriptive narrative force. He has observed the behavior of wolves and other animals in the wild and therefore writes with a convincing attention to detail that gives his narrative credibility.

Black Swan

Black Swan (2010; dir. Darren Aronofsky) shows the jealousy, competitiveness, self-destructiveness, and sacrifice that can underlie the creation of art.

The ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) has focused her entire life on becoming a successful ballerina. She is driven, both by her own ambitions, and those of her mother, who left the ballet at age 28 to give birth to her daughter. The mother is the kind of parent who relives her own failed career through the aspirations of her child. She both wants and doesn’t want her daughter to succeed. She recognizes the psychic damage the ballet is doing to her daughter, and while she is genuinely concerned and even takes action to try to protect her child, she also feels vindication, relief, at what she believes will be her daughter’s failure. Because she needs her daughter to rely on her, she infantilizes the girl, whose bedroom is decorated with stuffed animals. The mother is constantly painting pictures of her daughter that she has placed on the wall in her daughter’s room. Or are they really pictures of herself, dancing her daughter’s roles? A picture of herself is attached to the corner of her easel. She is one source of tension in her daughter.

Jealousy, competitiveness, envy are far more rife among artists than most would admit, and we see those forces at work among the members of the ballet troupe and their director. When the senior ballerina is forced out of the company, the others see the opportunity to take her place. They are genuinely pleased when one of their own wins a part or scores a success, and even more pleased when she fails. They regret her departure yet move immediately to fill her place. Nina is no different than the others. She is certain that others, specifically Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the troupe just arrived from California, are out to thwart her desire to dance the title role in Swan Lake. She imagines various plots Lily has concocted, and for the most part they are all in Nina’s head.

There is predation here. The Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) in trying to awaken passion in Nina, may or may not sexually exploit her, as he has apparently done with other members of the company. He hints to her that there are ways she can encourage him to give her the part she wants. And he knows he has made her love him—he uses her attraction to him as a way of tormenting her and compelling her to dance with passion. Nina’s mother implies something of the same may have happened to her.

Nina is the artist who merges her identity in the part she plays or wants to play. In this case that role is of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina so identifies with the part she wins, and that she is afraid of losing, that she begins to live out the role in her own life. The roles of the White Princess and Black Princess she is supposed to dance become contending aspects of her personality. The director tells her that although she can dance the White Swan to perfection, she lacks the emotion to dance the Black Swan. He drives her towards feeling that emotion.

About the dissolution of Nina’s personality and identity as the premier of the ballet approaches, Black Swan is narrated through Nina’s eyes. As her personality and identity dissolve, she hallucinates, imagines entire scenes, but because we experience them from her viewpoint, we’re late to realize how ill she has become, even as we experience some of the terror and confusion she feels. The difference between the real and what Nina believes is real is often unclear.

Visually this film is beautiful. But it is not a pleasure to watch. It is not a pleasure to witness a gifted personality’s destruction. The film shows the ballet as a craft of obsessive work, self-mutilation, pain, and suffering. The gliding, beautiful movements seen by the audience are moments of physical and emotional anguish for the dancers on stage. In this sense the beauty of the ballet is a created illusion in which the audience must believe, but which the dancer feels not through the grace of her movements but through the applause of her audience and of those whose praise she craves.

Among the various films about the ballet, from the The Red Shoes (1948) to The Turning Point (1977) and White Nights (1985) to Robert Altman’s The Company (2006), we have seen a number of varying perspectives, some romantic and some not, of this classical dance form. None of these films portrays the physical and emotional pain and destructiveness of the ballet more successfully than Black Swan.

Easy A

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter serves as a faint narrative source for the 2010 film Easy A (2010; dir. Will Gluck). Emma Stone plays the good high school girl Olive who has never gotten in trouble, whose reputation is pure, and who actually does her homework. One of her good friends is a gay boy constantly bullied and harassed by students in their school. He convinces her to assist him in a ruse that he thinks will help him survive high school until graduation. At a party they pretend to be drunk and go into a bedroom where they make the sounds of wild sex. Everyone gathers outside the door, listening. As a result the boy is able to hold his head up in high school and pretend that he is a manly heterosexual. Other marginalized boys in the school—Asians or Hispanics or overweight boys--soon make similar requests of Olive. She starts charging them for her “services.” She soon acquires the reputation of a loose woman. Even her best friend is convinced, though Olive tries to tell her the truth.

The high school in this film is defined by a double standard. On the surface everyone seems to be outraged at Olive’s supposed sexual promiscuity. A group of pious campus Christians prays for her redemption, or at least for her to leave the school. The group leader does what she can to get her expelled. Beneath the surface, things are a different matter. The leader of the pious Christian group has a slow-witted boyfriend who hasn't been able to graduate high school for four years—she dates him because he’s safe and she can control him. She doesn’t know he's having an affair with a school guidance counselor, who contracts chlamydia from him as a result. She's the person Olive goes to for advice and counsel. To avoid her husband's learning about the affair, she spreads the rumor that the boy has been having an affair with Olive, who gave him the disease.

Matters quickly mushroom out of control. Olive has to deal with the consequences of the supposed promiscuity that has made her a scandal in the school. One boy who befriends her she discovers does so only because he wants to have sex with her. Everyone, her best friends, the other students at the school, the teachers, her parents, are more than willing to believe in her newly acquired reputation.

Easy A is entertaining and amusing but not very deep. Emma Stone’s work as Olive is excellent. She's an endearing actress. But most of the other characters are broadly drawn, almost cartoonish. The film gives the students little credit at all, suggesting they are all shallow dunderheads who care about nothing other than fashion, sex, and gossip. The adult characters are funny but wholly out of touch. Olive's parents want to be her best friends. They encourage her in whatever she does so that she will have self-esteem. When Emma's mother hears rumors about her daughter's promiscuity, she never questions the rumors, assumes they are true, and confesses to her own promiscuous youth. The father does the same. Olive learns far more about them than she ever wanted to know. All the adults are vapid hypocrites. There's really no one Olive can go to for advice. In the end she has to make her own decision about how to deal with her situation.

This film is not really an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter--it’s more a riff on the novel and its character Hester Prynne, who willingly wears a bright red A on her dress as admission of her adultery. That's what Olive does— she wears a big red scarlet A on her dress--except that she admits to behavior she hasn't engaged in—she wears the scarlet letter out of anger and resentment of what everyone so easily comes to believe about her.

Olive learns that she has to control her own situation, make her own decisions, and not allow social pressures and other people to lead her astray. This is a too prosaic a conclusion for a film that actually showed much promise.


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.