Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Restrepo Movie Review: 15 Months in the Life of a U.S. Army Platoon in Afghanistan

Captain Kearney sits front and center with some of the men in his unit.
O.P. Restrepo in the Korengal Valley
In recent years, the nature of documentary film making has taken on a new face, changing from standard films consisting of stock footage or video records with often stodgy narration and interviews to the modern style ushered in by documentarians like Errol Morris and Michael Moore, who often blur the line between documentary and narrative. As documentaries have relied more on narrative elements to tell a story, they have gained popularity and occasionally some box office success.

However, Restrepo is a return to old-fashioned straight-forward documentary technique. The film makers, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, spent 15 months on the front lines of Afghanistan, embedded with an army platoon and documenting with their cameras everything that they witnessed, which was everything from juvenile antics in the outpost to deadly firefights in the mountains. Then they conducted interviews with several surviving members of the platoon after they’d returned home and then cut it all together into a cohesive portrait of life in the Korengal Valley, at the time dubbed the most dangerous place on earth.

The two journalists remain virtually anonymous throughout the film. We rarely hear their voices and never see their faces. The stars (if we can call them that) are the (mostly) very young men of the platoon. Their courage and approach to the job is belied by their youthful faces and behavior. One young soldier, Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, talks about his childhood in Oregon growing up with hippie parents who wouldn’t even allow him toy guns. Shortly after that confession we see him manning a large caliber machine gun, looking like a little boy not only because of the apparent glee of having the opportunity to act out childhood fantasies he was never permitted, but because the size of the weapon itself dwarfs the man operating it.

The title Restrepo is taken from the name of the mountaintop outpost (O.P. Restrepo) built overnight to secure tactical positioning over the whole valley. The outpost itself was named for their fallen comrade Juan “Doc” Restrepo, the first casualty of their platoon shortly after deployment. His death, like the ever-present outpost, casts a pall over the men for the duration of their tour.

We see a lot of Captain Kearney, mostly in the interview segments, but also as the stoic commander of his unit. He is tasked with making the Korengal safe for building and infrastructure. I think there may be a tendency among people in the safe confines of their home countries to think that we just need to send in some contractors to build roads, run electric lines and lay some railroad track. But as we watch Kearney talk to the village elders we begin to see the Sisyphean task before us. He’s talking to elderly villagers and poor farmers about helping the U.S. military root out the insurgents so that “ten years from now the Korengal Valley’s gonna have a road going through it that’s paved so we can make more money, make you guys richer. Make you guys more powerful.”

Kearney’s rhetoric has the ring of propaganda and certainly it’s a big bill of sale, but we get the sense that he buys it himself. And certainly there is some truth to what he says, however simplified the U.S. Army tries to make it sound. But we can’t help thinking about how bizarre it must sound to the Afghan people.

Hetherinton and Junger have presented as unbiased a film as I think it was possible to put together. Of course their choices in the editing room inevitably tell one story at the expense of countless alternatives. But there’s no derision directed at the mission, nor is there any jingoism buying into it wholeheartedly. We see the results of the accidental killings of civilians as well as the deaths of American soldiers. Neither is presented as more tragic than the other. They are simply the terrible byproduct of warfare. The one moment I felt a slight sense of bias was at the inclusion of a scene in which Kearney explains to the elders that the reason the Army took one of their neighbors was because they were told he was “bad.” It’s almost impossible not to think about the U.S. track record on torture since the war began and the way those reports and stories severely undermine the credibility of our soldiers on the ground who have to rely on the trust and goodwill of the people for their own safety sometimes.

The camera functions as a passive observer to the point that the soldiers hardly seem to notice its presence. It can often feel frustrating because we’re so attuned to the conventions of battle sequences in fictional films that lay out the groundwork and show us where the enemy is and depict all the action, whereas the footage here remains constantly with the American soldiers. There’s never a cutaway to what the Americans are shooting at as convention has trained us to expect. That I felt this frustration is a testament probably more to the realism of narrative war films because the firefights in Restrepo feel like a Hollywood movie.

That frustration is no fault of the film makers of course, but the apparent lack of focus is. This may have been the intention as a sort of parallel to the unclear mission of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, but it might have been helpful to include some graphics laying out the region and explaining between missions where the soldiers are going and what their mission is. The officers always seem to know what they’re talking about but I felt a bit lost by all the chatter of directions and targets because there were few reference points given for their location at any given time away from O.P. Restrepo.

Ultimately this documentary is probably unlike anything most people have seen before. The two journalists put themselves at great risk making the film and the soldiers likely put themselves at risk protecting Hetherington and Junger. As a simple document of 15 months in the life of an Army platoon it functions, but I can’t help feeling there’s more story in there. When they inform us at the end that the U.S. withdrew from the Korengal Valley in April 2010 we immediately think about all the work that went into building O.P. Restrepo, about the lives lost defending it and what a waste it seems. But no further information is provided as to the reasons for withdrawing. Was it because the mission succeeded and the valley was secured for builders? Or was it ultimately a defeat? Restrepo maybe could have achieved greatness with a slightly clearer objective. 


  1. I was underwhelmed by this film. Way oversold by critics.

  2. There's a tendency to lavish praise on anything involving soldiers who are still in combat. Restrepo would have done better to have actually taken a political stance, I think. Although the soldiers themselves don't ever make anything political, which may have been an editing decision. Surely in 15 months some soldiers had something political to say about why they were in Afghanistan.

    A more interesting documentary I think lies in the thoughts of the village elders. I'd like to see someone talk to them. What do they have to say about insurgents and the U.S. Army?

  3. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if the soldiers had no political opinions whatsoever about what they were doing. Existential, yes; political, who cares? When you're a soldier, you're in it. That's it.

    You're right that a more interesting doc would look at the people who actually live in that valley. In fact, I kind of think it's the only interesting documentary on this subject. What did we learn from Restrepo? 1) American soldiers are brave, well-trained and well-equipped, but freak out in surprising ways over predictable combat deaths 2) American mid-ranking officers could just about handle managing a McDonald's franchise and 3) the Afghans think we're fucking assholes who shoot their kids, torture their friends and slaughter their cows for ineffable geopolitical reasons. I'd love to hear the Afghan side of the cow incident. That alone is worth a documentary.

  4. have some respect for the dead! your fellowmen your country man. It matters not why the foot soldiers are there, they are there because they thought they were honoring their country! God I hate the side seat quarterbacks and people who have something to say but don't put their asses in the line of fire. Its so easy for us to sit in out comfortable home with our ac and 60inch tv and watch the men who did the back breaking work. They gave all and then some and their sanity for something no body else will do. I cant even began to understand how these men got home without losing their minds. I cant even begin to understand how these men our young boys spend one day there without going stark raving mad. I was pissed through the whole dam movie. All I wanted to do was bomb the dam whole county for ONE LOSS AMERICAN. In Panama the US sent a ton of highly trained men for ONE MAN. Can we do less there? Fifty men??? Then they leave? What did they die for? If that was my son I would be motivated to get off my ass and bomb the snot of out of the county for myself. Can we do less for someone else son? There parent see what bull shit you say. I will see my son off to war next month god help the piece of shit that hurts him or his friends. I will spend everything I have and be come the biggest pain in the ass the US has ever seen if one hair on my son head is harmed by some coward that shoots from a cave or some stupid American with an opinion. IF you have something to say I will hear it only from the people that did the time everyone is a loud mouth piece of shit. The ding dong about the cow really??? A cow is worth your dime? I wouldnt pay for the cow either. But that young man really wanted to make it right. Dam kill ten thousand cows. I am so dam mad. I watched Larry Rougle lay there dead I was shocked I paused it and just looked at him. My god their families his daughter would see that. MY heart bled for hours and hours. His family all their families see that horror. It was one of the single most devastated feeling since watching the towers fall and thinking "GOD tens of thousands of people just died on National tv what a cooe for the terrorist. The joy they expressed and I died a little that day. I became cold. I who never killed in my life wanted to kill for the first time. Anger filled me rage still fills my heart to see our young men give all for people to have their dam stupid opinions. I bought a tee shirt "US ARMY fighting for your rights weather you want it or not." IT says it all.

  5. Ummmm, this is a posted review of a documentary and comments related to the positives and negatives of the film itself as a document. discussion of the merits of such film do no reflect anyone's opinion of the war in Afghanistan or of the soldiers who fight.

    And sorry to disagree, but it's hardly a fair judgment to insist that people who don't put themselves in harm's way by going to war are not permitted to register an opinion. That's a cop-out and self-serving way of looking at discussion. Besides which, how do you have any idea whether or not I or other commenters here have or have not served in the military?

    Good luck to you and your son. I hope he comes home to you.