Journalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington have created an incredibly focused documentary that functions as a microcosm for America’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Junger and Hetherington were imbedded with a platoon of US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008. The platoon was sent to Korengal Valley, a remote and extremely dangerous part of the country, where they constructed an outpost named OP Restrepo after Private First Class Juan Sebastián Restrepo, a medic who was killed early in their deployment.
Junger and Hetherington clearly must have been at risk themselves as some of the footage in Restrepo is startlingly immediate. We see bullets hitting the ground near the soldiers being filmed and we see the way the soldiers react under the extreme duress of fending off yet another attack. The incredible first-hand experience of such scenes then contrasts with the talking-head interviews that were later done with the soldiers after leaving the valley. Shot against a black backdrop in tight close-ups, the interviews provide a sometimes disconcerting calm contrast where the soldiers now attempt to make sense out of what happened, what they did and how the experience changed them. While many of these interviews are assured and confident, they are also moving and honest, with nearly all of them containing at least one moment where a fleeting expression betrays an incredible degree of repressed pain.
Capturing the range of emotions displayed by the soldiers is one of the film’s greatest strengths and many scenes that Junger and Hetherington have chosen to include demonstrate both the humanity within the soldiers but also the degree in which their training has conditioned them to function under extreme conditions. Feelings of fear and fatigue are pushed aside when there is the need to spring into action and while feelings of grief are acknowledged the soldiers are expected to ‘get over it’ and continue with their jobs. The most powerful moment in the film is witnessing one soldier momentarily break down during an ambush on discovering that his friend has died in the attack. The confusion, distress and horrified disbelief that he goes through, while in an extremely dangerous situation, is confronting viewing.
However, while Restrepo to an extent humanises the soldiers it also reveals the sinister way in which they have dehumanised their enemy. The desire for revenge and glee which the men express when gunning down an enemy soldier from afar is understandable in the context of what has happened and such detachment is probably also a necessity, but that doesn’t alter how chillingly different the soldiers regard the lives of their own from the lives of the largely unseen others. Scenes where the soldiers attempt to work with the local Afghan elders reveal a lot of mutual resentment and frustration; however, the seriousness of the situation is dramatically rammed home when an attack on a Taliban hideout results in civilian injuries and deaths. The response from a soldier is to rationalise the incident by presuming that the injured and dead civilians were likely to have been connected in some way to the Taliban. He speaks with the same slightly irritated tone that was previously used to negotiate with a local farmer on how the US army would compensate for the loss of a cow.
The overall impact of Restrepo is to neither demonise nor glorify the American soldiers, but to convey their experiences and give them a voice to tell their own stories. Every viewer will bring their own baggage to how they respond to the footage that Junger and Hetherington have chosen to include but ultimately it is difficult not to feel in some way for the soldiers, even if you do have some very specific reservations. Restrepo also wonderfully captures the moments of downtime between incidents where the men have to rebuild, entertain themselves, prepare for what is coming or reflect on what has passed. The steady rise of frustration, exhaustion and fear is juxtaposed by moments of humanity, whether it be the soldiers discussing their loved ones at home or joking around.
Restrepo succeeds as both a remarkable piece of cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking and a tribute to the soldiers who are put through hell. While on the surface it doesn’t appear to be offering any explanations, judgements or commentary, it does convey a deep sense of tragedy that a war of this nature is being fought, it is destroying the lives of the local population and the US soldiers being sent to fight are either getting killed or being left with serious unresolved emotional issues. In one scene a soldier describes how being shot at is the ultimate rush and he’s not sure how he’ll be able to return to civilian life. The soldiers frequently talk about the need to move on but the various adherences to rituals and preservation of symbols that acknowledge the dead suggest that there is an enormous amount of repressed pain that is yet to be fully recognised.