Documentary Review: RESTREPO
Filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger follow a platoon of U.S. soldiers, the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, during their 15-month deployment to Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley. Without comment or personal intervention, the filmmakers show what it’s like to be at war. The soldiers are in constant danger, under extreme stress and always fearful.
Filmmakers who follow soldiers into combat are also in danger. Tim Heatherington was subsequently killed while filming in the Middle East.
As they leave for their 15-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade know that the area is considered to be the most dangerous place they can be sent, but they are gung ho, confident and ready to conquer all. After the platoon arrives in the Korengal Valley, however, they realize they’re not properly prepared for their mission– to build a road through the valley with the help of locals. They know neither the geographical nor political nor cultural terrain and, in a land that’s torn apart by generations of armed conflict, knowledge of such things is essential for survival.
Shortly after their arrival, the mood of the company is brought down when their much admired medic, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, is killed in action.
Soldiering on, they take the initiative in securing the safely of their base against continual attack from incoming ordnance. They toil day and night to establish a high ground fire base, which they name Restrepo, after their fallen comrade. The base gives them command of the valley, but they are still attacked while on patrol or carrying out their mission. Embedded with the troops, the filmmaker/journalists chronicle the deployment, showing actual combat, an IED incident, and guitar playing during down time. There’s a mix of the adrenalin rush of combat with the terror-tainted tedium of waiting for the next bomb to drop. And, it’s all real life.
Cast of Characters
The film focuses entirely on the soldiers, some of whom are interviewed after the fact and in extreme close up to tell us about their experiences and feelings. It is clear that they have been traumatized, emotionally scarred, perhaps for life. We meet Doc Restrepo only in a very brief homemade video clip that was recorded while the platoon was en route to the Korengal Valley, but he remains a strong character in the film because his comrade for , but there are no ‘expert’ commentators, no elements other than those that are actually present on the scene. Afghanis are not interviewed, but they are present in sequences showing negotiations with local people and combat scenes, including those in which women and children are accidentally killed. The filmmakers do not appear in the film.
Theme and Style
Restrepo‘s slogan, “One Platoon. One Year. One Valley,” is a good indication of the film’s mission — to document the lives of soldiers deployed in a dangerous war zone. It is pure and unmanipulated reportage of the very best quality. The filmmakers stood along side their subjects at all times — even while under fire — so they were always inside the action, but as observers. That they were able to film so steadily, brilliantly and insightfully while under fire is amazing. Their observations bring you to your own jarring encounter with the stress, adrenalin and shock of combat.
The film is apolitical, never attempting to lead you to conclusions about the value of the war in Afghanistan, the pros or cons of current foreign policy or any such debates. You draw your own conclusions.
The Bottom Line
Restrepo is the strongest, most compelling film — documentary or narrative — yet made about the war in Afghanistan. Without polemics, it reveals the essential realities of American soldiers who are caught up in an internal battle between their sense of duty, honor and righteousness, and their loss of faith and confidence in the mission and the probability of success, and who are questioning how they’re going to be able to adjust to civilian life. Because watching Restrepo is emotionally devastating, the film serves as a call to arms to end the war in Afghanistan. Restrepo should be mandatory viewing for everyone responsible for formulating America’s foreign policies — that means government officials and those who elect them. Hell, Restrepo should be mandatory viewing for everyone.
Restrepo was releasted theatrically in 2010. It is now available on DVD and online.
Directors: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Release Date: June 25, 2010 (limited theatrical)
Running Time: 93 mins.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, including descriptions of violence
Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
Company: Outpost Films, National Geographic Entertainment