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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
a courageous film that shows a war that is, like the Korangal Valley, a loop of grit and despair
It's inarguable that we need to support up the soldiers in Afghanistan. It's the cliché in political speeches, but this film shows that this is more than just a saying when given a human face and context. Restrepo doesn't try and bluntly make the case that the conflict there that the US is engaged in is really worth it, or that we should leave immediately. The filmmakers let the soldiers speak for themselves, and the situation tells much more about what's really going on there. The ground troop that makes Restrepo- named after a much beloved fallen man that died suddenly during a small attack- which is a fort on a hill overlooking the valley, are all mostly kids who are in the army for one reason or another (one of them, who gives the most background, came from a hippie-family), and they are where they are and got to buck up with the situation for the months into the year it goes on till they are relieved.
We see some of the action, but if you're looking for the traditional war film please look elsewhere. This doesn't share the intensity of, say, last year's The Hurt Locker, but the film isn't on the same wavelength stylistically. Junger and Hetherington want these faces of the soldiers, and their experiences, to tell more than the visceral shocks that are shown on screen. Point in fact, there isn't a whole lot of action on screen, either because, logically, it would be difficult for the already in-grave-danger cameraman to get it on film (most of all that Rocky Mountain Ridge episode that everyone's haunted by), or that the US Army wouldn't allow it to be shown in the film. It's here, in having the lack of what we expect to see in a war film, that it gathers its strength and resonance.
The film Restrepo is engaging and absorbing as a collection of moments and scenes, detailing what everyday life was like there, and sometimes it could be just plain dull, or on the 'downlow' as it were. We see the dealings the army tries to make with the locals, who are either too scared of the Taliban (one gets the sense they're like a mafia with bigger guns) or don't want to help since, frankly, the US ends up killing a few civilians here and there, many of whom have never seen US troops before. Or, on the flipside, those that do want to deal with the soldiers after a cow is caught in the outlying fence on the perimeter and is killed, which is valuable property to the natives. And we also get to see how these guys, mostly kids in their early 20's or younger, having some relaxing time when not being fired at or firing back.
To be sure, some sequences are intense, such as the Rocky Mountain Ridge tale which has the soldiers being interviewed still unable to handle with the casualties and how they were surrounded by the Afghan forces. But what one walks away from this film, shot in the Korangal with straightforward, sobering shots of soldiers doing what they do, and with telling interviews shot much later when they were in Italy, is how they weathered the chaos and did accomplish something there with the fort (albeit later abandoned altogether in April 2010). It's extraordinary to see it so up close, and to put the human face on it. The audience, however they feel about the conflict currently (from the looks of things Obama's keeping soldiers there for longer stretches until "it" is "won"), get a fresh perspective and can walk away with their own conclusions. That, and those haunted faces of the soldiers themselves, who in profile have that stare in their eyes, sometimes more-so than others depending on when talking about what, and knowing that look may be there for the rest of their lives.
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