During the Vietnam War--one of the few times that the military gave journalists full access--TV audiences routinely saw live coverage from the front. Sometimes journalists spoke into the cameras as the platoon they covered took fire. One time a soldier not 10 feet from the reporter took a fatal bullet and slumped over, on live television. Such coverage ultimately helped to end a war that had dragged on through three presidencies. And we haven't seen anything like it since . . . until now.
From May 2007 to July of 2008, journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger dug in with the Second Platoon of Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in the rugged and remote valley of Korengal--considered to be the most dangerous posting in Afghanistan. If the name rings a bell, maybe it's because Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta of the 173rd Airborne recently became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. His heroism occurred right there in the Korengal valley, where Hetherington and Junger went on assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News. The two had no axe to grind, no thesis to advance, and no political agenda. They spoke to no generals and cared nothing about the reasons for maintaining a presence in Korengal. All they wanted to do was document soldiers' lives in a war zone, to give audiences an immersive experience so that they might feel what it's like to be a soldier: to take and return fire, to patrol the dangerous mountains, to deal with the loss of comrades, to live in close quarters under harsh conditions, and to amuse themselves during those rare moments when they're not living in fear (and trying to hide it).
The filmmakers followed the platoon for the entire duration of their deployment. Or, as the tagline for this film says, "One platoon, one valley, one year."
Hetherington and Junger collectively made 10 one-month trips to Outpost Restrepo, named for a beloved medic who was killed in action. Each time they would fly by helicopter into the main firebase in the valley and then hike two hours to reach Restrepo, which was basically just a dug-out bunker made of sandbags and full of little more than food, water, and ammunition. Floors were dirt, there was no running water, and the men had to burn their own feces for sanitary reasons. Even when they slept, the men were not safe from enemy attacks, and they took fire at least once and as many as four times per day. "I felt like I was like fish in a barrel," Sgt. Brendan O'Byrne says on-camera in one of the interviews that the filmmakers conducted in Italy after the platoon shipped out. Those intercut recollections are the only artificial element in this 93-minute documentary. There's no voiceover and no other structure: just footage of the men doing what they do, with those occasional interview segments to add perspective. The interviews are more revealing than usual, because the men often can't process their feelings when they're in the thick of things or surrounded by buddies.
While there, the filmmakers obviously gained acceptance, because there's a matter-of-fact quality the main footage has, rather than the kind of camera self-consciousness that we usually get from TV reality shows. Hetherington and Junger slept with the men, went on patrol with them, and did just about everything except pull guard duty and return fire. Both had been war correspondents before, and so that clearly helped them to earn the soldiers' respect and confidence.
The result? A documentary that's cinema verite at its best. Though the camera is shaky at times and the film stock occasionally grainy, for the most part these two journalists display some pretty good filmmaking instincts. Each had a camera and filmed mostly what interested him. At times they'd divide the chores to make sure they had bases covered. ""There were scenes where we were both shooting and we would divide things up in a crude manner," Hetherington told an interviewer. "I'd take the wides, he'd take the tights, or I'd shoot the Afghans while he shot the Americans." Some of the most interesting footage comes from the weekly shura that Restrepo's Capt. Dan Kearney holds with the valley elders--and one unscheduled visit that's prompted by the platoon's shooting (and eating) of one of the local cows." There's also footage of Kearney learning that an air strike he called in had hit civilians as well as the "bad guys," and his superior officer coming in to smooth things over in a real lay-down-the-law way--all this coming on the heels of the scariest mission during the deployment. Following an air strike, the soldiers had to do a tactical walk-through of a village during what was called Operation Rock Avalanche.
"Being in a combat zone can be both exhilarating and terrifying, combined with long stretches of boredom," Hetherington said.
Even without any narration that's made abundantly clear. Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin tells about having a hippie mother who wouldn't let him play with guns or watch violent movies, and as he sets up his machine gun and fires test rounds, you can see the obvious delight he takes in it. And when the men watch a plane drop bombs on its target, one of them looks into the camera and say, "It's a real high, like crack. You can't top that." And though the men expressed uniform terror at having to take part in Operation Rock Avalanche, a what-are-the-doing-now postscript reveals that most of them ended up in Afghanistan again on a second deployment, while a few landed in Iraq. And the ones who ended up at Ft. Benning or other stateside postings sounded either regretful or apologetic. Only a few were able to leave and transition easily to civilian life.
"Things appear very simple in a war zone as the clutter of daily living recedes with the larger equation of being killed or staying alive. Mix this with being drip-fed adrenalin, and inevitably it's going to make 'coming back' incredibly difficult," Hetherington said.
"There were many, many scenes of all types that we were heartbroken not to include in the film, "Hetherington said. "There were very funny moments in the 'shuras'--the meetings with the elders--and also very intense moments when someone was very angry. There were several scenes of locals saying how much they hated the Taliban and gave up information on them, and other scenes where they clearly hated the Americans and wanted them to leave. All of it shows the complexity of this kind of war, but we couldn't put everything into the movie."
What's here, though, is positively riveting, and "Restrepo" comes closest of any film I've seen to fully suggesting what being a soldier is like.
Some of the footage is exceptionally grainy, but for the most part the video quality is quite good, given the circumstances. Close-ups and two-shots are especially clear, while backgrounds in long shots and low-lit interiors provide the most challenges. "Restrepo" is presented in what appears to be 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Have a look at some of the clips on the "Restrepo" website.
Two audio options are offered: an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or what is presumably the original track, an English 2.0, with subtitles in English. Like the picture, the sound isn't studio-spectacular. It's guerilla filmmaking, and for that it's very good.
There are more than a dozen deleted scenes, a bunch of extended interviews (not all, since 40 hours of interviews were shot), a contrived segment of a sleeping soldier and a dream montage, PSAs, trailers, and printed updates on many of the soldiers--what are they doing now?
"Restrepo" is an unforgettable and compelling look at "soldiering" that put filmmakers at risk as they captured a platoon's entire deployment in one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. Coming in the wake of last year's "The Hurt Locker," this film ought to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. And if it doesn't win Best Documentary, I'm not sure what would.