Dir: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
National Geographic Entertainment
Here we are in 2010, still mired in Afghanistan. Generals are second-guessing presidents, Hamid Karzai is threatening to join the Taliban and people are still dying. But to most of the American population, Afghanistan is a world away from baseball games, “You’re Cut Off” and KFC’s monstrous Double Down sandwich. We can thank the media for that.
As an experiment, as I sit writing this review, I will open CNN.com to see what the top stories are of the moment. “Are we ready to forgive Chris Brown?” “Lady Gaga’s bus driver’s odd talent” and “Marilyn Monroe chest X-rays auctioned” are all major headlines mixed in with fear-mongering stories about leaking oil and hurricane watches. In politics, Senator Robert Byrd finally died and Joe Biden called some ice cream guy a “smartass.” What’s going on with the wars? For a society that can live in, film and broadcast the same moment, we hear very little about what’s going on Afghanistan and Iraq.
That is what makes Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo so important and frustrating. By placing us in the midst of US soldiers assigned to one of Afghanistan’s deadliest regions, Restrepo is the most we’ve seen about life in a war that’s been going on for almost a decade. Fuck embedded media horsecrap, this shit’s the real thing. It is obvious that Hetherington and Junger are going for humanism over making a political statement. We live with the soldiers, share the boredom of downtime in this lonely valley and feel their pain when a buddy is killed. But while Restrepo functions well on the human level, it is easy to forget the big picture. What is the fighting all about anyhow?
Winner of last year’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Restrepo focuses on the second platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as they dig into the hotly contested Korangal Valley and build Outpost Restrepo, a small fort named after a fallen comrade. Alternating between handheld in the moment footage and talking head interviews with the surviving platoon members, Hetherington and Junger switch between desperate battles and testimonials as if filming an episode of “The Real World: Afghanistan.” Sure, the testimonials are important but they remove some of the impact of handheld footage. For example, watching the soldiers take out their fear and aggression by wrestling with one another and dancing to “Touch Me (I Want Your Body)” tells us some much more than an antiseptic interview.
The most striking thing about Restrepo is that new technology does not forgive past sins. War is hell and these men have been forever marked by the experience. Just like Vietnam vets, the men fighting in Afghanistan share a similar trajectory. Disbelief after being plucked from average American lives and thrown into a culture and landscape completely alien, one they never thought they would visit. A disconnect from reality exists, a painful isolation where technology separates them from their quarry, yet psychologically they know they are still killing other humans. And the pain and nightmares that continue to plague them after they’ve come home. None of that is any different.
Restrepo does well to show the hell of war and the destruction it will bring upon the lives of so many young men. Yet, we continue to fight. For the rest of us, it’s time to change the channel.