Blood shed and blood shared are the twin barrels of “Restrepo,” an often electrifying verite trip into combat and the hearts of men. But despite its remarkably intimate footage of war and loss, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary suffers from the same problem as the ongoing U.S. drama in Afghanistan: a lack of narrative coherence. Global broadcast via National Geographic will get the film in front of viewers, which it deserves, but any kind of breakout theatrical success seems as likely as peace in our time.
Beginning in June 2007, helmers Junger and Hetherington began making trips to Afghanistan to cover the engagement of Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, with guerrilla Taliban fighters in Afghanistan’s treacherous Korengal Valley. They made ten trips in all, reporting for Vanity Fair and ABC News (Junger is the author of “A Perfect Storm,” among other nonfiction works, and Hetherington is a much-honored war photographer). The shooting is remarkable (they both filmed at the same time), the moments are gripping, and the losses are captured in a way that, while they move us immensely, never let the viewer forget who’s who and who’s lost what.
But “Restrepo” — the name of the platoon’s first casualty in Korengal and the mountain outpost they dedicate to him — needs a story, much like the war. The roaring lack of public interest in what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan is largely due to a failure of storytelling: Tell us what it’s about, and then we’ll care.
Predictably enough, given that the men themselves are the subject of the film, “Restrepo” strives to be apolitical; as a result, it’s as strongly anti-war as it can be, given the open-ended and controversial nature of the conflict. Pic doesn’t avoid issues; they just don’t come up, either in the individual interviews with soldiers who recap what turned out to be a 15-month engagement, or in the ongoing dialogue in the field, which ranges from grief-stricken to hilarious.
The reasons for the U.S. presence in Korengal are never raised; the oh-so-obvious parallels to Vietnam are never mentioned; the soldiers’ opinions of why they’re there are never discussed. What’s important to Junger and Hetherington — and what has become the focus of so much literature about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — is that the men are fighting, principally, for each other, as opposed to a cause or a political theory. While there’s little introspection in “Restrepo,” the camaraderie is palpable, the death of any man heartbreaking; one wonders why they can’t just go home.
Production values are topnotch, particularly the under-fire shooting of Junger and Hetherington, and Michael Levine’s first-rate editing.