Restrepo: A Review

February 21, 2011

Restrepo, 2010, USA

a soldier fighting in the Korengal Valley of northeast AfghanistanDirected and photographed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington

Restrepo hits you like a cluster bomb and as you gather the pieces of yourself you get hit again. Powerful imagery, engaging subject matter, and a very personal central group of characters make for an epic film experience. War is always a compelling subject, but it takes a special kind of needle threading to keep from being too political or too glorifying. Restrepo achieves this and the film takes you in all kinds of emotional turns which makes this possibly the greatest war documentary ever made.

The film chronicles the deployment of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team on a 15 month deployment in the Korengal Valley of northeast Afghanistan. It follows the lives of the men from their deployment through the end of their tour of duty. The Korengal Valley was at the time regarded as “the deadliest place on Earth.” The goal of the deployment is to clear the Korengal Valley of insurgency and attempt to gain the trust of the locals.

The deployment begins at OP Korengal and early in the campaign PFC Restrepo is killed. As the campaign intensifies the remaining solders are given the task of building an advanced OP in the middle of the valley. The outpost is constructed and given the name OP Restrepo (see here on goggle earth) in honor of their fallen comrade. They face many challenges and intermittent firefights while advancing, building and maintaining the outpost, and do so seemingly overnight. From there an even deadlier campaign, “Rock Avalanche”, is ordered and the soldiers must engage the enemy in the field with tragic consequences for both the soldiers and the civilians.  The surviving troops reflect on their time there and cope with its aftermath.

Although this film does not cover the scope of a Hearts And Minds (1974), it gets a lot more personal than most war docs I have seen. In comparison, Armadillo 2010, a Danish war documentary set in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, released around the same time as Restrepo, follows the same sequence of events, but lands at far different results. In Armadillo we follow the deployment of Danish troops into Afghanistan. The film shows the story from the perspective of the soldiers, some looking to fulfill their duty and ohers are looking for adventure, and by the end the soldiers seem to follow a natural progression of life, some even wanting to return to combat. There are a few injuries, but no one is killed. The cinematography, music, and editing displays the effects of film art to dramatize the story, making it resemble more of a narrative film than a documentary.

Restrepo works because it keeps to its source; the fears, hopes, and relationships of these soldiers are as real as it gets, and some of them don’t come back. Of the soldiers who make it home, it’s pretty evident that none of them will ever be the same.

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