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Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's year dug in with the Second Platoon in one of Afghanistan's most strategically crucial valleys reveals extraordinary insight into the surreal combination of back breaking labor, deadly firefights, and camaraderie as the soldiers painfully push back the Taliban. Written by
Sundance Film Festival
'One platoon, one year, one valley' goes this documentary's impressive slogan. Such concentrated focus is truly a selling point. This is vivid, intense, unvarnished stuff, and the two filmmakers won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance this year for their troubles. Hetherington also won World Press Photo of the Year 2007 for an image of one of the soldiers resting at Restrepo, an outpost named after medic Juan Restrepo, one of their first casualties upon arriving at this dangerous place of daily combat, Afghanistan's Korangal Valley. The two embedded journalists, Sebastian Junger (of 'The Perfect Storm,' with a contract from Vanity Fair for coverage) and distinguished British war photographer Tim Hetherington, are both filming the platoon off and on all through its 15-month deployment. They don't analyze or look at a wider context. They're in effect in the foxholes, where there are no atheists, and this time no military strategists either. What they show, and show well, is the camaraderie of this American Army unit, the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, their bravery, hard work, humor, and love of one another, and, less emphatic but also constant, a deteriorating relationship with the local citizenry. If you are going to make a narrative feature about how contemporary American soldiers in daily combat look and act, this is a good place to go, and the images are superb, and bravely shot, at the cost of physical injury and at the risk of getting shot like the soldiers. The film has no structure other than the actions of the platoon, their two big projects being building OP Restrepo, a 15-man outpost above the outpost that restricted the enemy's movements, and a foray dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche, during which the troops came under the heaviest fire; some of them still have nightmares from Avalanche.
The Korangal Valley is a scene in the middle of nowhere with no escape, as the soldiers saw it on arrival -- a place of multiple daily engagements with a hidden enemy. Strategically, this place seems like it was useless. The Korangal Outpost was closed in 2009 after six years, hundreds of US wounded, and 50 US soldiers dead (and heavier losses on the less well-equipped Afghan side). Some US military actually think the Korangal Outpost -- and the outpost of the outpost, O.P. Restrepo where most of the action takes place -- only increased local sympathy for the Taliban.
This is one "context" thing we get a glimpse of, because the film shows moments from a few of the weekly "shuras" when the platoon leader, Captain Keaney, met with local "elders," scrawny men of indeterminate age, often with brightly hennaed beards. He swears at them freely (safe, since they don't know English) and replies unceremoniously to their complaints. He's a combat officer, not a negotiator. At one point one of the locals' cows gets caught up in concertina wire (we do not see this) and the troops have to kill it (and eat it, from what we hear, and a very tasty meal it was). Elders come specially to complain about this, and demand a payment for the lost animal of four or five hundred dollars. Permission is refused for this from higher command and the elders leave with only the promise of rice and grain matching the weight of the cow. It looks as if the Afghans lose face in these "shuras," but the Americans don't gain anything.
Of course there is the inevitable clash when the Americans push so close they kill some Afghan civilians and wound some children. As with all wars against partisans or insurgents, the locals are all implicated. Captain Keaney is chagrined. But the captain -- he and a handful of the soldiers are shown interviewed later throughout the film, commenting on the experience and the platoon's major projects during the deployment -- is proud of the job they did, nonetheless. They gave the enemy a harder time than their predecessors. OP Restrepo, their initiative, gave them a strategic advantage in the valley. And the men were brave, even when they were scared, and they' were kind and loyal to each other.
'Restrepo' illustrates the Chris Hedges line that opens Kathryn Bigelow's similarly intense, visceral, but unanalytical fiction film, 'The Hurt Locker,' "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Soldiers are shown hooting with excitement and saying that being fired upon is "better than crack," and they don't know if they can go back to civilian life after living day to day with such an adrenalin rush as the Konragal Valley and Operation Rock Avalance gave them.
The festival enthusiasm is not the end of it because 'Restrepo' will be broadcast globally by National Geographic. But, reviewing the film at Sundance, Variety reviewer John Anderson argues, with some reason, that this documentary "needs a story, much like the war. The roaring lack of public interest in what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan is largely due to a failure of storytelling: Tell us what it's about, and then we'll care." Will we? What the story of the US in Afghanistan looks like is being stuck in one place, fighting a pointless war, on varying pretexts, in impossible conditions, like Vietnam. Here we don't see the drugs and demoralization of Vietnam, though they may be there. The interviews give only a glimpse or two of the damage this deployment did on the 29 or so men -- as well as of what a very fine bunch of men they are. Michael Levine, the film's editor, who cut Venditti's great little doc 'Billy the Kid,' deserves much credit for bringing some order to a wealth of chaotic material.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
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