This absorbing and disturbing documentary is heavy on visuals, light on punditry.
The Afghan war documentary "Restrepo" opens with amateur video footage of Pvt. First Class Juan "Doc" Restrepo, an Army medic, traveling by train with his buddies to one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. Beers in hand, they are heading for Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, an Al-Qaida and Taliban stronghold near the Pakistan border, a virtual shooting gallery. Grinning and clowning, Restrepo tells the camera that he and his men are "loving life and getting ready to go to war."
Shortly thereafter, one of his Second Platoon buddies describes how Restrepo, two bullet wounds in his neck, "bled out" in the helicopter that was evacuating him. His unit honored him by driving farther into the snipers' stronghold than U.S. armed forces had ever gone, establishing an outpost in his name, a shantytown of plywood and sandbag walls, without running water, powered by generators. There they spent their yearlong hitch, taking and returning fire, shooting and reaching out to local villagers, roughhousing like the teenagers most of them were, and collapsing in cots where they might be shot while asleep.
"Restrepo" presents this daily grind of humor, hard work, terror and boredom in raw and unfiltered form. Co-directors Tim Hetherington, a photographer, and journalist Sebastian Junger don't add expert talking heads or geopolitical maps. Starting in June 2007, they dug in with the soldiers, making 10 trips to the Korengal on assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine and ABC News. Their account of the platoon's year "at the tip of the spear" is fly-on-the-wall verité. It's a film that shows us how things are and requires us to draw our own conclusions. After the recent avalanche of pundit-filled advocacy documentaries about health care, failing schools and environmental collapse, it's a bracing experience to be trusted to think for oneself.
If it must be defined, the film can be called antiwar and pro-soldier. The vague battle lines, the weekly meetings with village elders where the Americans try to reach across an unfathomable cultural gap, the horseplay the young soldiers use to let off emotional pressure after another day in the valley of death; you wonder what is being won in this war and at what cost. When one infantryman sees the corpse of a brother-in-arms, his tearful collapse is shocking. It's the sort of thing one never sees in a war drama. Only reality could be so irrational.
Boots-on-the-ground footage is bracketed by interviews with the soldiers after their tour, as they comment on the experience. None can find the right words, but their inward stares and awkward silences speak volumes. "Restrepo's" power is its success in drawing us into the world of the soldier. But there is no way for an outsider to enter the most profound and traumatic experiences of these young men's lives, and that's a truth the film respects, as well.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186