By Casey Cooney
June 28, 2010 12:22 a.m.
A hail of gunfire from across the forest pins a young U.S. soldier to the ground, his first instinct to return fire met with the uncertainty of who and where he should be shooting. The cameraman follows this soldier, putting his own life into jeopardy to show the harsh reality of a young platoon in the brutality of war. This is just one of many eye-opening moments in National Geographic Pictures’ “Restrepo” that shows the struggle of our young soldiers.
“Restrepo” is a documentary feature from Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger chronicling a year in the lives of the young men serving in the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade on assignment in the Korengal Valley, the single most dangerous combat zone in the 2007 stage of the Afghanistan conflict.
The most compelling element of the documentary is its complete devotion to showing the hardships these men faced on a daily basis. The filmmakers don’t try to downplay the horrors of war; the camera follows right alongside the soldiers as they come under fire. In one of the more striking scenes, the camera documents a man’s death and manages to immediately capture the raw anger and tears shed by his comrades.
The namesake of the film comes from the loss of Private First Class Juan Restrepo within the first few days of the operation. The soldiers name their base of operations in his honor, and throughout the film his memory seems to be the driving point for continuing through the inevitable hardships the men encounter.
Despite the subject matter, the filmmakers are able to bring a sense of levity to the battlefield, showing the soldiers singing songs, throwing a dance party and playing pranks on one another when they aren’t being shot at.
The film’s real strength lies in the filmmakers’ ability to evaluate the war without adding any unnecessary political overtones. The war on terror has been a battleground for political conflict, but “Restrepo” is only concerned with showing how these young men live and adapt to the crises that they find themselves in. The interviewed soldiers are exclusively members of the platoon ““ no higher-ranking officials are brought in, nor are the filmmakers actively involved aside from the recording.
The film doesn’t seek to explain why the soldiers are in Korengal, or try to address why we are in Afghanistan; it only seeks to outline the struggle to fight for one’s country. One small problem with the devotion to such coverage is the lack of explanation for people who aren’t as familiar with military slang or Afghan culture.
The filmmakers’ devotion to telling the soldier’s story doesn’t try to stay politically correct, instead focusing on the clash of culture that goes on between the various firefights. At some points, this creates comedy, particularly in the series of pow-wows with the village elders, sometimes involving bartering for livestock lost in the battle. The tragedy of loss is not lost in translation; a stray missile hits a settlement, the scene closing with an Afghan man clutching his child’s limp body.
“Restrepo” manages to carefully create a war documentary that outlines hardship without demonizing any particular group. Junger and Hetherington masterfully document the trials in Korengal and present footage that is remarkable and constantly engaging. “Restrepo” is a refreshing documentary that helps shed light on a reality that few Americans experience, leaving viewers with an immense respect for the contributions of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.