Don't Overlook It: Restrepo
By Tom Houseman
August 9, 2010
One of my goals in life is to get people to see better movies. Whether it's pestering my friends to come with me to whatever indie film I’m about to go see, or telling people I just met that their taste in movies is wrong, I tend to be a bit of a bully, but I think it’s for a good cause, because I’m supporting great art, instead of just great special effects. That’s why I started this column. It’s a way for me to spread the gospel about the great independent films, foreign films, and documentaries that don’t get the attention they deserve from the movie-going public. So in between arguments over the merits of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, you can get the inside scoop on the great movies that aren’t getting talked about on Entertainment Tonight or, really, anywhere else… ever. Until now!
Since the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, filmmakers have attempted to tackle the multitude of issues that we as Americans should think about concerning these two wars. Preaching and proselytizing have abounded, with mostly liberal writers and directors attempting to sway the hearts and minds of moviegoers with heartstring-pulling tales, and for the most part the heartstrings have not been pulled, partially because nobody actually goes to see these movies, but mostly because even the people who do go are sick of being preached to. I know I am, which is why I struggled sitting through In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs, even when I agree with the message they are shoving down my throats.
Which is why when I see a film that doesn’t attempt anything more ambitious than to honestly portray what life is like for American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, the result is so much more powerful and moving than any story a filmmaker can come up with, or any character a movie star can play. Need proof? Go see Restrepo. Released by National Geographic Entertainment, Restrepo is a documentary that is simply shot, simply told, and manages to be informative, entertaining, and emotionally resonant.
First-time filmmakers and Photographer/Journalist duo Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger took on the onerous task of following The Second Platoon for a year in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. For those of you who don’t know - presumably everyone who hasn’t yet seen the film - the Korengal Valley is one of the most dangerous areas in which to be stationed, and the Second Platoon faced enemy action virtually every day they were stationed there.
Hetherington and Junger do a remarkable job with their debut film, as they never attempt to give their film a message or use it as a soapbox to either denounce or promote the war. They managed to record an incredible amount of footage showing the struggles that the soldiers faced in their daily lives, as well as the levity that they injected into their routines to help deal with the stress. We see the men running from and returning gunfire, as well as roughhousing, dancing and joking with each other. Over the course of the film the platoon becomes a family, defending each other with their lives, never letting their fear and sadness interfere with their jobs.
With this considerable amount of information at their disposal, the only job that Hetherington and Junger had to do was fashion it into a narrative that is easy to follow and keeps the viewer's attention. I say this only not to belittle this considerable challenge; had they just strung various pieces of footage together Restrepo would not have been the film that it is. Mixing the footage with interviews of the soldiers after they return from their post, Hetherington and Junger have put together a perfectly paced film that moves quickly and efficiently without ever losing the thread of the narrative.
There are two main parts to the story told in Restrepo. The first half of the film introduces us to the soldiers and shows them building and protecting OP Restrepo, an outpost built in what was formerly enemy-controlled territory that the Platoon overtook. The OP is named after PFC Juan Restrepo, a beloved member of the Platoon who was killed on the second day of the fifteen month campaign. We see footage of Juan Restrepo on the way to Korengal Valley, as well as the other soldiers remembering his quirks and positive attitude, and watching them reminisce is heartbreaking. The second half of the film details a particularly violent and dangerous mission that the Platoon goes through, mixed with the interviews of the soldiers several months later, still haunted by what they went through during those four days.
Restrepo is a very simple film, one that never oversteps the bounds of the stories it is telling, which is what makes it so successful. We see no statistics about casualties or success rates in the Afghanistan War, no talk of politics or protesters, because for the men of the Second Platoon, all of this information is irrelevant. For them all that matters is staying alive one day at a time, and Restrepo’s specific focus gives the film its power. If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, stay away, but if you’re looking for an honest, unbiased portrayal of what life is like for the men and women fighting overseas, go see Restrepo.