“Restrepo”: Bringing a Real “Hurt Locker” to the Homefront

RESTREPO_FILMSTILL_003 In the jumble of summer box office grosses over the past weekend was the $35,500 for “Restrepo,” the documentary about a unit of soldiers dispatched to a remote region of Afghanistan.

The number is actually healthy given that the movie played on just two screens, and given the middling box office history of anything touching on Afghanistan or Iraq.

The movie has been marketed “a 94-minute deployment,” the story of the soldiers who occupy a 15-man outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered in its 2007 to 2008 time frame as one of the most harrowing tours of duty in the war.

Unlike so many other projects, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger made a point of featuring no political judgment. Having been embedded with their platoon through much of the frame, the emphasis is on the verite, the rough conditions and the strength of character. They feature no interviews with expert talking heads, military brass or even members of soldiers’ families. As they say, “Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.”

Even so, while the movie builds confidence in the soldiers and their dedication to their mission, the same cannot be said for the overall strategy. As apolitical as the movie is, and as much as it does not delve into the questions of why we are there and how we will get out, it does capture the confusion and complexities as this tight unit tries to discern enemy from ally, and win the affinities of villagers and their elders.

It’s in those scenes where you begin to understand why predictions of securing and democratizing the country get measured in decades, not years. This process of showing and not telling actually
brings to mind the
now very
often repeated quote
from the recent Rolling Stone profile of
Stanley McChrystal, attributed to one of his aides, who said, “If
Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would
become even less popular.”

More than anything, though, what pervades much of the documentary is the sense of isolation of the outpost, named “Restrepo,” in honor of a fallen medic. It’s boredom punctuated by sudden, daily firefights. Placed in the rugged valley near the border with Pakistan to try to stall a key relay point for Taliban and even al Qaeda, the soldiers face a bewildering set of obstacles that go far beyond steep geography.

Just about everyday the soldiers perched on the hillside face incoming fire, but the culmination of all their fears is a counteroffensive called Operation Rock Avalanche. It’s a mission through the rocky terrain with the constant threat of ambush. “The whole time you are think when is it coming? When are they going to hit us?” one soldier says of the fear that always lurking.

The scenes of battle are balanced with soldiers efforts to win the support of villagers and their elders, largely through meetings in which they explain their motivations and, hopefully, glean information about the Taliban. There is some cooperation, even camaraderie, but again, a sign of progress is just as easily met with a setback. As one soldier says in frustration, “We’ll take one step forward then they take two steps back.” The terror of the Taliban is met with the promise of jobs, but it’s never quite clear to what extent they have forged lasting bonds of trust. When the elders demand hundreds in payment for a cow killed in the line of fire, the soldiers just cannot come up with the money. They have to settle for food, goods, whatever they can pull from their primitive location.

More problematic is when villagers and children are among the casualties in U.S. airstrikes. A lieutenant colonel tries to explain that this was the result of going up against a largely faceless enemy, cowardly in hiding out in caves. But as he tries to temper the situation by holding out the prospect of newly available jobs, one elder yawns.

Without a narrator, the soldiers tell their own stories, via interviews the directors culled from extended interviews following the platoon’s deployment. Their words give meaning to their experience, but it’s also what they don’t say, when they struggle to talk about a fallen comrade, where you see how much the have changed from when they started their deployment. As the war debate continues in Congress, on cable news and by military brass briefings and press conferences, it’s a final reminder that this was the real thing.

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