With its unblinking focus on young American soldiers sent to fight a seemingly inexhaustible enemy on its home turf, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s “Restrepo” was one of the more gripping war documentaries to emerge in recent years, and one of a relative few to bring much-needed attention to the conflict in Afghanistan. Returning to the extraordinary footage he shot with Hetherington, who was killed while covering Libya in 2011, Junger has emerged with a worthy companion piece in “Korengal,” a less harrowing, more reflective dispatch from the front lines, and an equally vital examination of the strange crucible of selflessness, courage, bloodlust, rage, confusion and fear endured by the brave men interviewed here. The recent success of the Afghanistan combat drama “Lone Survivor” notwithstanding, commercial prospects remain slim for this sort of tough, matter-of-fact war reportage, making it unlikely that “Korengal” (whose release was funded by Kickstarter) will surpass its predecessor’s $1.4 million worldwide theatrical haul en route to a distinguished cable and VOD afterlife.
Those who have seen “Restrepo” will recognize the faces of the brave men in the Battle Company of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, who between May 2007 and July 2008 were stationed in the Korengal Valley (aka the “Valley of Death”), one of the bloodiest focal points of the war in Afghanistan. It was during this period that Junger and Hetherington, armed with their cameras, embedded themselves with the Second Platoon at the remote outpost known as Restrepo (named after a medic who was killed in action), where they experienced the same extreme physical exertions and deprivations as the troops, and the same relentless, near-daily onslaught by Taliban fighters.
The film duly pays tribute to the men’s skill and professionalism under unfathomable circumstances, in particular the tactical precision with which they learned to conceal themselves, and to identify the whereabouts of their often invisible attackers. But while Junger briefly revisits such dramatic episodes as the August 2007 Ranch House incident, in which Taliban forces came perilously close to penetrating one of the platoon’s key firebases, he’s less interested in immersing viewers in direct combat this time around than in examining its complex aftereffects on those who endured it. Even more than “Restrepo,” then, “Korengal” derives its particular power from the interviews that Junger and Hetherington conducted with the men in Italy in 2008, shortly after they returned from their tour of duty.
Their debrief sessions offer up a contradictory yet coherent host of responses in which relief is inescapably tinged with regret, as well as a strange, undefinable longing to go back. It’s there in the soldiers’ early acknowledgments of the beauty of the Korengal Valley, which in a happier context could have been a Colorado-style skier’s paradise (“This place could be sports heaven if they just stopped shooting at us,” one notes). But it’s more profoundly rooted in the strong, sacrificial sense of kinship that binds the men together, the knowledge that they would all have gladly died for one another — an insight that, as they recall it, produces not just pride and camaraderie, but something close to euphoria.
The notion that “war is a drug,” which provided the central thesis of Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War-set drama “The Hurt Locker,” gets an even more thorough workout here. Asked if he’ll miss anything about the experience, Capt. Dan Kearney acknowledges the sense of adrenaline he felt during every firefight, showing the camera the hole where his helmet was once struck by a sniper’s bullet. Answering the same question, another man says plainly, “Shooting people. It’s always fun shooting.” Working with editor Michael Levine, Junger doesn’t shy away from some of the more troubling aspects of life in this lonely place, from the unapologetic gun-lust with which the men survey their weapons, to the briefly glimpsed scenes of roughhousing and hazing (plus the occasional gay epithet).
In this strictly U.S.-focused context, our understanding of the Taliban forces is limited to the fear and hatred they instill in their targets. As their knowledge of exactly whom they’re fighting and why remains continually elusive, the men have no choice but to respond to each threat with killer instincts at the ready. “Fighting another human being is not as hard as you think when they’re trying to kill you,” observes Spc. Kyle Steiner, not the only man here who testifies to the necessity — and the unmistakable satisfaction — of striking down the enemy. Far more complicated to deal with are those Afghani civilians whose motivations are less clear-cut, caught as they are between two hostile forces. As someone bitterly points out, many of these villagers are perfectly happy to accept food and medical aid from the American troops (who are shown trying to foster dialogue by attending weekly meetings held by Pashtun elders), only to betray them to the Taliban afterward.
Amid the fog of this particular war, death and trauma are the only certainties, a fact that Junger drives home by including footage from Restrepo’s memorial service. And he allows one soldier, Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne, to deliver perhaps the film’s most honest and hauntingly conflicted statement about the price he and his men paid for doing their duty, and the moral confusion that still continues to linger. “Everyone tells you, ‘You did an honorable thing. You did all right, you’re all right, you did what you had to do,’ ” he says. “I just hate that comment, ‘You did what you had to do.’ Because I didn’t have to do any of it.”