RESTREPO Review (National Geographic)


RESTREPO is the Sundance Film Festival’s 2010 Grand Jury Prize documentary winner. It chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie, shot by veteran war journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 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. – Araya Crosskill

RESTREPO is 20-year-old medic, Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo.

When he is killed during a skirmish with Taliban militia in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the members of his Battle Company platoon build the eponymous Outpost Restrepo in his honor.

The construction is at once a memorial to one of Battle Company’s favorite members and a figurative middle finger aimed at the guerillas who killed him.

Why Battle Company must defend the Valley for 15 months is not completely clear. However, it seems its troops are charged with ensuring the construction of a strategically important road.

Such a road snaking through the heart of the Korengal Valley will piss off the Taliban militia who infest its outer edges and will, conveniently, make the valley residents rich – all this according to Battle Company’s ham-fisted leader, Capt. Dan Kearney, who tries to make the argument that US interests dovetail nicely with those of third-world villagers.

The “road-will-make-you-rich” argument is Kearney’s pot sweetener. He is in the Korengal Valley (reportedly the most dangerous place in the world for a US soldier) to win hearts and minds. But while attempting to do just that, he mistakenly kills at least 5 innocent Afghanis and massacres a cow, most likely the sole source of income for a destitute farmer who has never seen better times.

If there are any doubts that Kearney will fail to win over the local tribesmen, they are put to rest during his weekly shuras with the valley elders. These “consultations” are studies in bewilderment and barely concealed hatred. In one early scene an elder attending the shura is befuddled by a straw that accompanies a complimentary juice packet. The packet is as alien to him as the Americans. Perhaps the cultural divide will never be bridged.

But Restrepo does not claim to be a film about the insensitivities of American foreign policy. If its directors (author Sebastian Junger and war photographer Tim Hetherington), tout an agenda it’s the pursuit of impartiality and the championing of unvarnished truths:

“The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality.”

Indeed, but if this is war unfiltered where are the dead bodies?

Restrepo does a good job of capturing the boredom every fighting man must deal with, and in its most moving scene – where the death of a comrade drives presumably his closest friend to the kind of tears that go beyond mere crying – we not only get an inkling of the intense bonds men in combat forge but also how the fear of death can at times be rationalized away until the man who dies before you is the one who means the most to you.

But where Restrepo fails, by its own standards, is where it agrees not to break the long-standing taboo of showing US soldiers destroyed in battle.

If the idea is to hold the American public’s nose to the filth of war then Restrepo should have shown those images that churn the stomach.

The horror and subsequent reshaping of beliefs that only that kind of footage can hope to conjure is largely replaced by debriefings of the survivors conducted shortly after they’ve been flown out to Italy. In these moments, the directors tighten the camera’s frame and search their subject’s face for a hint of some revelation that a hollowed out stare can only begin to suggest.

What unspeakable things did these men see?

If only Restrepo could have shown us.

Restrepo premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel with Limited Commercial Interruption at 9 pm. ET/PT.