Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Running Time: 93mins
Restrepo is as close as most of us will ever get to experiencing the realities of war. For a generation desensitized to violence and quickly losing the ability to personally connect with actual people, this Cannes award winner and National Geographic-backed documentary honestly highlights the harsh truths of war and friendship. The film explores the 15 month deployment of Second Platoon, B Company; a division of the Airborne Brigade Combat Team in The Korengal Valley, Eastern Afghanistan. The Korengal Valley, whilst little known to the rest of the world, is one of the most dangerous postings of all U.S. Military stations. As the platoon make their way into The Valley, they are startled by the cry of howling monkeys, mistakenly assumed to be the Taliban. Already, many are resigned to never returning home.
Restrepo opens with a bang, literally. As the Second Platoon’s truck creeps down a remote dirt road, it is hit by a roadside IED. The company quickly mobilise, survival instincts kick in, games faces firmly in place. This type of attack is worryingly commonplace, with B Company taking fire every day. Their initial outpost (The Kop) is constantly surrounded, enduring regular 360 degree attacks. Alarmingly, 70% of all bombs dropped in Afghanistan were deployed in Korengal.
The Kop outpost at Korengal marks the point where the road ends; and where the road ends, The Taliban begins. American Forces’ Attempt to establish a foothold in Korengal’s harsh terrain has come at a price. Nearly 50 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in the valley. One of the fallen was Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, a medic who was fatally wounded by enemy fire, sustaining two shots to the neck. As the platoon advanced along The Valley, they sought to establish a secondary outpost. In honour of their fallen friend, the new base is named Restrepo.
As the mission continues, the platoon attempt to win the hearts and minds of locals. They engage in regular dialogue with local elders and promise a future of prosperity and security. The Company’s subsequent actions quickly cast a shadow on this message however, as innocent locals (including women and children) are killed in U.S. bombing raids.
The fearless camera work by documentary makers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington ensure the viewer is right in the thick of the action. The Korengal Valley is undoubtedly a harsh and daunting terrain, but it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Valley plays like a character in the story, sweeping and undulating. Intimate interviews punctuate field-shot footage, providing touching retrospectives of the tour of duty. It shows the principles as ordinary guys when outside the scope of war. Whilst in Afghanistan their dispositions alternate between “get some” shouting gun-toting jocks, steely enforcers and guitar strumming bro’s; sharing jokes and passing family photos around during welcome interludes in attacks. The emotional interviews suggest that even when back home, they are struggling to come to terms with the atrocities witnessed and the men often display moments of affecting vulnerability.
It is difficult and maybe even unfair to effectively document a war that is ongoing, with no real end in sight. To its credit, Restrepo does not exploit a political agenda nor does it explore the causality or reasoning behind the war. What Restrepo so accurately conveys is a time and place, exposing the brief positive moments of a truly horrendous situation.
Of course it is impossible to reflect on something that has not yet been fully resolved, the makers of Restrepo instead reflect on the individual impact of war. In one touching scene, marking the anniversary of Restrepo’s death, the platoon observe a minute’s silence. A quiet moment devoted to internalising the effect of the loss of a close friend. The silence is quickly broken by the sound of thundering helicopters overhead and gunfire close by. There is no silence in war. A poignant reminder in a moment when each soldier, attempting to reconcile their emotions in remembrance of the death of their friend and colleague, that the war persists and their nightmare continues.