The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Watch THIS Instantly: Restrepo

Justin here with a look at the excellent documentary, Restrepo.

Journalism matters because it produces pieces like Restrepo. This isn’t a survey of the military operation in Afghanistan, it’s not a human interest story, it’s not an expose, and it doesn’t blow the lid off of anything. Restrepo is the story of a small group of soldiers during their deployment to one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Director, Sebatsian Junger and photo journalist, Tim Hetherington embedded themselves with members of the 173rd Airborne for a full tour of duty. Hetherington, sadly, was just killed in Libya while covering the civil war there. Restrepo is testament to what a monumental talent we lost. Junger and Hetherington were fearless in their commitment to get the full story about the experience of soldiers in the Korengal valley. The soldiers they were following lived in front of Hetherington’s camera. Restrepo is raw, candid, and essential viewing.

One of my favorite directors, John Huston, got his start largely from making short war documentaries to play in front of features and news reels. The lessons he learned there formed the basis of his no-nonsense directing philosophy. Much like his gems, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, Restrepo’s biggest asset from a narrative perspective is that nothing comes between the story and the viewer.

Restrepo is comprised of two different kinds of footage. The first are interviews with the surviving soldiers after the fact. The other part is footage shot in the field. Though you’re watching the same people in both instances, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced. I can’t pretend to know the psychological discord that returning soldiers face, but Restrepo conveys that uneasiness better than any war documentary I’ve ever seen. The soldiers in Restrepo talk about being fired at constantly. Everyone in the Korengal valley knows exactly where their base is located. A weird energy permeates the base as brief moments of revelry turn into excited bloodlust in short order.

Restrepo excels at showing the strange balance that today’s soldiers must maintain. In addition to being incredible warriors, they must also act as diplomats to the people around them. Several times during the movie, the Captain in charge of the company met with tribal elders from the Korengal and had to justify their presence and actions. The Captain said that collateral damage happens when the elders help terrorists. He was trying to explain the accidental killings of a couple of children in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wouldn’t trade places with someone in that position for anything.

Restrepo doesn’t really editorialize at all. It’s a decision that makes the movie stronger. By keeping the focus on soldiers, Junger and Hetherington say much more than otherwise would be possible. The soldiers are always shown as regular people in a terrible situation. It’s strange watching them and considering that if a few things were different, I could have been there. The operation in Afghanistan is questionable at best. While I’d like to think that the actions of the soldiers in this documentary have some great worth, it’s hard to see any victory from this region as anything other than pyrrhic. Still, nothing could diminish my esteem for these brave young men. Restrepo is an incredible document and testament to them. Decades from now when people want to know what the war in Afghanistan was like, they’ll watch Restrepo.

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Watch THIS Instantly: Restrepo + TIME