Consider “Restrepo” a real-life version of “The Hurt Locker.” With the tagline “One platoon, one year, one valley,” the documentary shows us war unadulterated, straight from the trenches.
Filmmakers Sebastian Junger, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine and author of the best-selling “The Perfect Storm,” and Tim Hetherington, an acclaimed news photographer, were embedded with the Battle Company troop deployed to the Korengal Valley, one of the one of the most dangerous posts in Afghanistan.
“Restrepo” is an apolitical film. Junger and Hetherington simply videotaped what they saw, without editorializing. The filmmakers didn’t interview soldiers or their superiors, nor question civilians, and they didn’t add any information the soldiers themselves didn’t have access to.
Here Sebastian Junger talks about his respect for the soldiers, his experience directing a film for the first time, and what “The Hurt Locker” got wrong.
OLSZEWSKI: The platoon was stationed in one of the most dangerous posts in Afghanistan. What made you do it? Is it something you pitched?
JUNGER: Yeah. I’d been with Battle Company [of the 173rd Airborne Brigade] in ‘05 in Zabul Province and I was just impressed by them. I’d never been with the U.S. military before. I was very skeptical about them, because in the wake of Vietnam they did not have a good reputation. But I was really amazed. I mean, I’ve been going to Afghanistan since 1996. And I thought, if these guys go back to Afghanistan — I thought Iraq was a huge mistake and I didn’t want to cover it — but if they went back, I wanted to follow that platoon for a whole deployment.
And they did go back, to this crazy place called the Korengal Valley. I didn’t know it was going to be so intense. I don’t think they knew, either.
OLSZEWSKI: Was there any preparation before you left?
JUNGER: [The military] didn’t do anything. It’s amazing how little they do, actually.
OLSZEWSKI: How much time did you spend there?
JUNGER: I did five one-month trips, and my partner, Tim Hetherington, also did five one-month trips. Sometimes we overlapped, sometimes we didn’t.
OLSZEWSKI: Was there ever a time you regretted it or feared for your life?
JUNGER: Oh, I feared for my life plenty. I didn’t regret it, but I definitely feared for my life.
OLSZEWSKI: Did you lose any footage because of equipment damage?
JUNGER: We did. We were shooting on a Sony HVR V1 and HDR Z1. And the Z1 dropped about half the tape that Tim shot on the last trip. That was the trip where the men were leaving, so we lost a lot of good stuff.
OLSZEWSKI: How much did you shoot?
JUNGER: About 150 hours. The editing was really hard.
OLSZEWSKI: Your directors’ statement emphasizes that you wanted to do an apolitical film, showing the reality of what troops go through, which reminded me of “The Hurt Locker.” Even one of the soldiers compared combat to crack, and that film opened with a quote about addiction. What did you think of it?
JUNGER: You know, even soldiers, I think, get sucked into that kind of [addiction] mythology. There is an adrenaline component, which is very obvious and very easy to focus on. But I think there’s something much more profound going on with soldiers being drawn back to combat. I think it’s really about the brotherhood out there. The sense of identity, the sense of purpose, the sense of utility that you get in a small unit like that in combat.
And those guys are 19, and as young men, they’re at the bottom of the food chain in society. They have no status, no identity. They don’t know what society wants from them. But out there, all those questions are answered. And I think that is actually what they’re after when they go back. I think the adrenaline thing is kind of the icing on it, but it really isn’t that relevant.
So for “The Hurt Locker,” apart from the many admirable things about that movie — it was very powerful in many ways — but the thing I think they got totally wrong was this sort of rogue, cowboy character who was doing stupid stuff and endangering himself and everyone else. And that doesn’t exist in the U.S. military. The central ethos of the soldiers is to not get your brothers killed. And if someone was acting like that? His own men would take care of it. And if they didn’t, the command would yank that guy out of there before he got someone killed. So that was completely implausible, and I thought really misrepresented a very profound aspect of the experience.
OLSZEWSKI: After fighting in a war, I imagine a lot of soldiers return because it’s hard to readjust to strip malls and normal life.
JUNGER: They don’t mind the strip malls. [laughs] Seriously, what they mind is not having a purpose, not being part of a group.
OLSZEWSKI: Did you find it hard to go back and forth?
JUNGER: I didn’t find it hard. I mean, I was in my 40s. I do have a sense of purpose; I do have an identity, an adult life. I have status in society. I have all those things that 19-year-olds don’t, that I didn’t have when I was 19, either. So I was coming back to something that counterbalanced the sense of meaning you get out there. They don’t have that counterbalance.
OLSZEWSKI: One scene I thought was very powerful was when Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle got killed and you see one of the platoon members sobbing and freaking out. You usually see soldiers trying to keep it cool. It’s gut-wrenching, but fantastic that you captured the moment.
JUNGER: They’re no different from a some high-school kid who sees his best friend get hit by a car. People think, because they’re soldiers, they somehow don’t have certain reactions to things, but they’re kids. And if a kid saw his best friend get hit by a car in front of him, and he was laying there dead, covered in blood? That’d be pretty traumatizing. That’s soldiers. They’re no different. There’s not less of an impact because it’s combat.
OLSZEWSKI: It seems that, after a point, revenge was a motive for attacking more than a sense of duty to one’s country, such as when the platoon’s captain says, “Let’s find these [expletive]s and make them feel how we feel right now.” Did you sense a lot of that?
JUNGER: Only in really, really bad moments. It’s a natural human reaction. Rules of engagement are pretty clear and pretty strong, so I don’t think [revenge] got them to behave very differently. But definitely the sentiment was there.
OLSZEWSKI: At the very beginning — though obviously they had way more pressing issues on their minds — did you sense anyone posturing for the camera?
JUNGER: Not much. Not in the movie. I’m sure in some of the footage someone was doing something that was a little amplified, a little exaggerated because a camera was on him. There was one guy in particular who’s not in the movie at all who seemed quite aware of the camera. Which is why he’s not in the movie. They really — well, they didn’t ignore us, because we were good friends with them — but they really ignored the camera after a while and didn’t think about it.
OLSZEWSKI: Did they have any cameras themselves to shoot when you weren’t there?
JUNGER: Some of them had little video cameras, little Flip cameras.
OLSZEWSKI: This is your directorial debut. How do you feel about it? Was it difficult?
JUNGER: It was different. I’m a writer. This was something that I did on the side — not to diminish it — but it was parallel to my real career. So if it hadn’t worked, if it doesn’t work, I’m O.K. I’m not depending on this. So it was all of the upside and none of the downside. I’m incredibly thrilled by [the reaction so far].
OLSZEWSKI: Did it start with the Vanity Fair/ABC News assignment? At what point did you think you could turn it into a documentary?
JUNGER: I went into this thinking I wanted to make a film. In 2005, I decided I wanted to follow a platoon, write a book about it, and make a documentary. Though I had no idea what that meant, what a nightmare it is. And by “nightmare” I mean expensive, labor-intensive — it just was a lot of work. And the odds are so small of it working.
OLSZEWSKI: Would you do it again?
JUNGER: Yes, if it was the right topic.
OLSZEWSKI: Which of your assignments or books have been the most rewarding for you?
JUNGER: This one. It’s the most emotionally intense. But they’re all rewarding in different ways. This one probably involved me the most personally.
OLSZEWSKI: I read that early in your career you became obsessed with “men under extreme conditions.” This project was pretty extreme, so what’s next for you?
JUNGER: I’m not sure. Though talking about extreme conditions, a book tour and movie tour qualify. [laughs] After two months promoting the book and now the movie, I’m pretty cooked.
OLSZEWSKI: How’s your bar, the Half King, doing?
JUNGER: Good! Doing pretty well.
OLSZEWSKI: Where’d the name come from?
JUNGER: The Half King is a Seneca chief who caused a lot of problems on the frontier in the 1750s. And when I found out about it, I liked the name and the history. There’s a whole explanation on our website if you’re interested.
OLSZEWSKI: Going back a bit to your first book, “The Perfect Storm,” were you nervous when the movie adaptation came out?
JUNGER: It was [the filmmakers’] thing. I wasn’t involved with it much. I would have been upset if they had the guys live or something! But it was a big Hollywood movie and I wasn’t that invested in how they did it, because it was no longer mine. And I didn’t really want to be connected to it. With “Restrepo,” I had total control, along with Tim. So I was worried in that sense because it was our creation. But “The Perfect Storm” wasn’t part of my life. I went to the set two or three times out of curiosity.
OLSZEWSKI: It was a good movie.
JUNGER: Yes, it was a good movie.