“Korengal” chronicles daily lives of U.S. soldiers sent to fight in Afghanistan. | ★★★ out of 4 stars
Active duty for the U.S. infantrymen in Afghanistan’s mountainous Korengal Valley was weeks of boredom interspersed with minutes of combat terror and exhilaration. Sebastian Junger’s documentary “Korengal” examines the way those experiences affected the young men at the tip of the military spear. It’s a thought-provoking, interview-based companion piece to Junger’s visceral 2010 Oscar nominee “Restrepo.”
The new film repurposes material shot for the earlier one, offering a wider consideration of a war that was a distant abstraction to most civilians. It shows the U.S. forces’ ambivalent attitudes toward the Afghan population they were sent to protect, and their belief that some locals are allied with the Taliban. The soldiers confess they don’t know much about the strategic reasons for the war. What counts for them is the man on their left and the man on their right.
“Korengal” is ideology-free cinema verité, allowing viewers to stamp it with whatever meaning they find. It will challenge both hawks’ and doves’ political preconceptions with uncomfortable truths from the soldiers’ mouths. Soldiers often enjoy combat and miss it when their tour is over. They also feel real spiritual damage after killing people.
“For a while there I started thinking God hates me,” former Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne says in the movie. “ ’Cause I did sins. That’s the terrible thing of war. You do terrible things and you have to live with them afterwards, but you’d do them the same way if you had to go back.”
As the U.S. combat mission there winds down and the nation engages in heated debate over how to tend to its returning veterans, “Korengal” is a matter of vital public interest.
It will spark viewers’ empathy. But it’s not homework. It’s vital filmmaking that makes you squirm with discomfort and laugh at scenes of soldiers roughhousing in their downtime like young Dobermans at play. In one scene the bored soldiers pelt each other with stones, and then pipes. With a wicked smile, someone brings out a Taser. For no good reason, another ceremonially smashes a guitar. What else can you do with it after everybody’s played every song they know 1,000 times?
The men forge a sense of camaraderie like nothing else in their lives. Junger’s film is an engrossing look at baptism into a tribal brotherhood. The troops admit that they don’t all get along, but any one of them would die for the other. “Korengal” is remarkable for holding competing ideas in balance: Even as war takes its psychological toll, it can give fighters the best years of their lives.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186★★★ out of 4 stars