Movies about our current wars have been well-documented box office disasters (do you remember seeing Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, The Kingdom, Rendition, or Home of the Brave?). The Hurt Locker may have taken home the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it still grossed less money than a summer blockbuster’s opening weekend. And yet it feels crucial that these movies are getting made. The latest, Restrepo, is a documentary so real and unflinching (and at times deeply frightening) that it’s hard to watch, but it is one of those film experiences that you’ll feel glad about getting through.
From May of 2007 through July of 2008, photo-journalist Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger (of Perfect Storm fame), carrying their own cameras, hunkered down to chronicle the life of a group of soldiers in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan-considered to be one of the absolutely most dangerous places to be (by the end of 2007, almost one-fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan was taking place in Korengal). Their outpost, nicknamed “Restrepo” after a beloved medic killed in the line of duty, is isolated and seems to be constantly under threat (men shot in their sleep, the camp attacked up to three or four times a day). The movie brings you up close-much, much, much closer than any civilian would probably like to be-to the action. Daily life includes no phone, no Internet, sometimes no heat or water-but plenty of cold, flies, monkeys, cursing and, oh yeah, constant threats of death punctuated by intense boredom and loneliness. The group of 15 men we get to know for 94 minutes are both heartbreakingly young and, as shown in interviews, clearly traumatized by their experiences of gruesome injuries and death. Messrs. Hetherington and Junger skip the traditional documentary customs of military talking heads, or a Sean Penn voice-over, and instead let the imagery of a reality that very few of us could imagine speak for itself, which is very effective.
It’s actually hard to imagine how the filmmakers, on assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News (Mr. Junger’s latest book, War, is an extension of his experience), managed to stay put-cameras were rolling when the Humvee they were in drove over an explosive-and a recent New York Times article reported that both men sustained injury during the duration (Mr. Hetherington broke his fibula and had to walk four hours on it back to base because there were simply no other options; Mr. Junger tore his Achilles tendon). Restrepo is not just an impressive piece of journalism; it’s the closest thing possible to a reenactment of deployment, without any political judgment. It’s not an easy or pleasurable experience for the audience, but it’s worth it.
Running time 94 minutes
Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
3 Eyeballs out of 4