Bedlam Productions, 2010
By Isabel Braverman
In these times of bipartisan journalism seeing a piece of honest journalistic work is rare. It is even rarer to see it make an impact. However, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s film Restrepo accomplishes both.
The film follows a group of soldiers in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, a place CNN dubbed the deadliest place on earth. The title refers to Juan “Doc” Restrepo, a soldier who was killed in the earlier months of his platoon’s deployment. It also became the name of the outpost they built later.
The film instantly draws you in with home video style footage of Restrepo joking around with his buddies before they go to war. It then cuts to a scene in which their tanks are bombarded with bombs, and the sound cuts out. The atmosphere is instantly eerie as we see destruction happening but cannot hear anything.
Hetherington and Junger do not take a stance on whether they are for or against the war in Afghanistan. They let the soldiers tell the story and have the viewers decide for themselves. There is no narration, only interviews of the soldiers interspersed between footage from the valley.
The interviews are tightly shot on just the soldier’s faces to draw in the audience. As they recount stories you can tell by their widened eyes and tightly clenched jaws that they are trying not to cry.
They are American soldiers. They are strong.
There is strength in their bodies and their bond with each other. Despite the seriousness of their mission, there are scenes of the soldiers wrestling and dancing to techno music with each other, playing guitar and video games and talking about their families and home life.
But life is not all fun and games.
The Korengal Valley is isolated and Capt. Kearney, leader of the group at outpost Restrepo, describes them as fish in a barrel. They are constantly under fire, and they shoot back into the vast valley, but at what? They refer to their target as the “bad guys,” but we’re never quite sure who that is.
They raid houses that are potential Taliban hiding spots, but are usually only the homes of regular civilians. The raids create tension between the soldiers and the locals, which is apparent in the weekly “shura” meetings with the valley elders. The elders are old men with long beards, usually dyed red, and turbans. You can see the frustration in their worried looks and frantic hand gestures when what they want to say is lost in translation. One question: what is being accomplished?
Although the war is a heated topic, the story is centered on the soldiers. Whether you support the war or not, you feel sorry for the guys there. While their mission might seem unclear, one thing’s for sure: They are coming back to America with a lot on their minds. Through a smile, one soldier tells how he can’t sleep anymore and all sorts of sleeping pills won’t help. He’d rather stay awake than sleep through the nightmares.
The guys agree that building outpost Restrepo was one of their biggest accomplishments, and both the outpost and the man behind it served as a beacon of hope in this powerful film.