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RESTREPO is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, "Restrepo," named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.
"This is hard, hard duty. A 15-month tour. Our admiration for these men grows. Their jobs seem beyond conceiving. I cannot imagine a civilian thinking he could perform them." --Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
"What we see is explosive, deeply moving and impossible to shake." --Peter Travers Rolling Stone
"It's the best thing I've seen in a long time." --Michael Phillips At the Movies
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These two films have been called an “imperishable record” of the war in Afghanistan. I had not realized what a tight connection there is between these films, as well as several other works cited below.
All of the photography for both films was shot on location in 2007-2008 by the photojournalist Tim Hetherington. Sebastian Junger accompanied Hetherington in this military-approved documentary. Demonstrating how real the dangers of war are, Hetherington subsequently died in 2011covering the civil war in Libya. The setting for both these films is the Korengal valley in Afghanistan, which is quite near the border with Pakistan and had been a significant Taliban stronghold, so when the military decided to establish a base there, it was definitely taking the fight to the enemy. It’s surprising to me they approved such a lengthy embedded photo-journalism project in such a high-risk area, as well as the at times “politically incorrect” bits that emerge.
The entire time of filming, this area was managed by the US Army 173 Airborne Brigade, 503 Infantry Regiment, 2nd battalion, “Battle” Company.
There is good English subtitling, but sometimes a lack of explanation of the many acronyms, technical terms and slang expressions used by the soldiers with each other. OP, often heard, is short for outpost, COP for Combat Outpost, and KOP for Korengal Outpost (one of many combat outposts in Afghanistan at the time). There are dozens of other terms used; some explained once and others, not at all. Obviously those who served will know the terms, but many civilians will not.
This first film, Restrepo, was put together from selected pieces of film of the troops in action, and close-up interviews with individual soldiers (many of those interviews conducted after they rotated out of the Korengal, often out of Afghanistan altogether). Chiefly, it was meant as a real-life documentary of what it was like to be in the infantry on a prolonged, active-combat deployment. During part of this time approximately 70% of all the ordnance used by US troops in Afghanistan was used right in the Korengal valley.
It was so remote from the capital and so well into enemy territory that there was no road to drive in or out. The bases were set up and supplied via helicopter.
The first base, Korengal Outpost, proved incapable of driving the Taliban out of the valley, so a second base was established, somewhat further in and higher up, beginning after dark and continuing while under fire. When fired on, the troops would drop picks, shovels or hammers, pick up their weapons and fire back until the enemy retreated, then go back to the construction work…..
Several of the soldiers commented that before they actually deployed they managed to convince themselves they were part of such a well-trained, well-equipped, well-led force that none of them would get killed; some went so far as to say they probably wouldn’t even get injured by the enemy. Their first casualty came about one day after this team rotated in—and was the son of an officer. This was a remarkably sobering wake-up call for all of them, and the poor on-site commander felt like a complete failure. The very first patrol he had ordered had resulted in the death of a career officer’s son, and he had promised all the men he was going to “get you all home alive”. [Perhaps he ought to have said his GOAL was to do that? Hindsight is always 20:20…]
During a 15-month deployment, these men took fire virtually every single day. That they actually had so few casualties under the circumstances perhaps spoke to several things: relatively poor equipment and training of the Taliban and the vastly superior firepower available to the US soldiers among them. This territory being home to the native forces and not to the Americans, usually they never even saw who was shooting at them. The result was often thousands of rounds of ammunition being spent, aerial attacks from helicopters, all in the hope that maybe one round would get lucky and kill the enemy, or (probably more often) they would get scared enough that they retreated. The soldiers felt it was a good day when they could actually see an enemy and target him.
The second casualty was Restrepo, so the new forward operating base was named after him; hence the name of this first film, “Restrepo”. One soldier commented it didn’t seem fitting, as the outpost was such a shithole and Restrepo was such a great guy, but by the end of their tour, they had considerably improved the post and were glad it had commemorated his name.
They were ever conscious of the fewness of their numbers, the difficulty of locating the enemy, the inability to trust the locals (who were, even if not sympathetic or active Taliban, at the very least caught between a rock and a hard place, likely to get killed by either side if they were too helpful to the other), and the possibility of simply being over-run and massacred if the enemy launched a sufficiently coordinated attack with enough men. One commented to the effect that even though the first base was only around 800 metres away, in an active firefight and especially in bad weather, it may as well have been on the moon; there would be nobody to help them except each other.
There was no discussion of politics, nor even the wisdom of strategy (except occasionally when someone critiqued his own prior decisions) but almost like an elephant in the room, questions are never far from the viewer’s thoughts.
One soldier did sum up what a total failure he felt the “hearts and minds” strategy had been, (as in Vietnam), and the reasons why it wasn’t working.
A few reviewers complained the film felt a bit disorganized, but I doubt it seemed much more disorganized than the experience seemed to the soldiers themselves, so in that way the movie again felt realistic.
I felt this was an excellent film and the extended features were also worth watching. These included references to two other related works: the book “Infidel” by Hetherington [making further use of photographs he took in Korengal] and the book “War”  by Junger, expanding on his written dispatches originally published in Vanity Fair. One of the “special features” is called “Soldiers Sleeping” and is a series of photos Hetherington shot of the soldiers sound asleep, superimposed on which were the images and sounds of active warfare when they had been awake—strangely moving. I give this film an A-, and “Korengal” should simply be thought of as “Restrepo-part 2”.
Perhaps the most important documentary still lacking is the reintegration [or in other cases failure of reintegration] of soldiers back into civilian life, whether with their wifes and children, family of origin, work, or just life in general—the “Restrepo of reintegration” so to speak, which for the survivors often felt even harder than accommodating to combat itself. I give the film an A-.
So 5+ stars for the movie. But -3 stars for poor production of the disc.
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