LAist Movie Review: Restrepo

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For a war that is nearing the decade mark, Afghanistan sure does fly under the radar. Lindsay Lohan’s SCRAM or the follies of modern athletes are likely to receive as much or more air time than armed conflicts involving our own neighbors, friends, and family members taking place in some hard-to-fathom hovel. In fact, compiled television news data from 2008 shows us that the Afghanistan campaign netted just over 1% of total airtime. Not exactly in-your-face journalism.

So when Restrepo opens with the desert-weary Humvee housing filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger being rocked by a roadside IED, it can be quite a jolt. The audio cuts out, the camera falls in and out of focus, showing us on screen exactly how we feel inside: disoriented. And that gut-clenching fearfulness doesn’t abate much in the 93 minute cinematic embedding with Battle Company in the Korangal Valley that is Restrepo, the Grand Jury - Documentary prize winner for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

For those of us who are unfamiliar (read: pretty much everyone), the Korangal Valley is the hardest, bloodiest, most dispiriting military outpost in an already disjointed eastern Afghanistan. Here, among the craggy outcroppings and stilted shanties, lay an enemy that can scarcely be seen, let alone distinguished from a well-meaning populace. From May 2007 to July 2008, it was also the home of Hetherington and Junger, two battle-hardened war journalists (the former a combat photographer and the latter a wartime reporter who penned The Perfect Storm). For those 14 months, they fall in with the men of Battle Company, donning flak jackets and camera equipment in an attempt to, in some small way, accurately document the war that no one seems to see anymore.

The result is an hour-and-a-half of true soldier life, from the need for human contact to the bravery of young men in unfathomable circumstances. Without a narrator, the imagery and the men themselves tell tales of digging in on a hillside outpost amid constant firefights in order to establish a strong presence and command point for the valley. They show us snippets of their home life, take solace in the ribbing from their brethren, and try desperately to reconcile their deep desire to go home with their well-worn sense of duty. Peppered throughout are post-tour interviews, where the men come to terms with duty they’ve done and the hardships they’ve endured. While not always action-packed, Restrepo is wholly engrossing and entirely captivating in a way that fictional wartime films seemingly could never be. Hetherington and Junger expertly put us in the middle of it all, forgoing none of the melodrama or danger in favor of honest and compelling journalism.

Documentaries like Restrepo exist to tell the world about something important, to add clarity and focus to an idea or problem that otherwise is too ephemeral to last. The film also reminds us that the cry to ‘bring the troops home’ may be too far afield. It seems that these days we’d all to better just trying to remember the troops exist in the first place.

Restrepo is currently playing at The Landmark.