Judge Clark Douglas is immensely appreciative of the selfless courage displayed by the men depicted in this film.
One platoon. One valley. One year.
Amidst all the political arguments surrounding the U.S. Military's presence in the Middle East in recent years, there has been too little focus on the actual men on the battlefield. One of the great strengths of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker was the manner in which it dispensed with traditional Hollywood grandstanding in favor of offering an objective yet hard-hitting look at the lives of a handful of soldiers. Restrepo takes the same approach to equally remarkable effect, placing the viewer in the company of a single platoon over the course of one year.
The Second Platoon is sent into the heart of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley; one of the country's most dangerous postings. They are given the task of building a remote 15-man outpost (named "Restrepo" after a medic who was killed shortly after the Second Platoon arrived in the Korengal Valley); a particularly dangerous assignment considering that they are being fired upon by Al-Qaeda forces almost every day. As the days pass, the men are forced to confront one terrifying situation after another, losing comrades along the way.
Restrepo was undoubtedly a very difficult film for directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (the author of The Perfect Storm) to make, but well worth the effort. In many documentaries about the military, the most compelling stories are those recounted later on—the cameras aren't around when the genuinely dramatic stuff goes down. This film captures nearly everything, as bullets whiz by and soldiers frantically attempt to stay alive and protect each other. The film would be gripping if it were a "realistic" staged drama in the vein of Brian De Palma's Redacted, but the fact that everything we're seeing is happening to real people raises the stakes considerably.
However, the film never comes across as a cheap attempt to cash in on "you-are-there" action. The moments of danger and violence are merely a small (but undeniably striking) part of the film's larger fabric and purpose. The filmmakers suggested they wanted the film to feel like a 90-minute deployment for viewers, and they've succeeded in that task. In addition to the moments of tension and gunfire, there are plenty of scenes in which we watch the men laughing together, doing the tiresome everyday work that is often forgotten about and interacting with the local villagers in the hopes of learning something, anything about the eerily faceless enemy (gunfire frequently seems to come out of nowhere, and one soldier quietly wishes that he could see the faces of the people he's trying to kill every day).
There's no narration to put everything into tidy perspective for us; no interviews with generals or experts. The only people Restrepo cares about are the soldiers who are actually putting their lives at risk in the Korengal Valley, and they're the only ones interviewed in the film. Though personalities and opinions vary, there's a collective sense that the men are more interested in fighting for each other than they are in fighting for the mission. They do what they do to the best of their ability—not because they have tremendous passion for fixing the problems of Afghanistan, but because they realize that by working effectively as a unit they'll be better equipped to keep each other safe.
In terms of what's actually being done in the Korengal Valley, there's a sense of frustration constantly present. One of the film's most compelling characters is Captain Dan Kearney, who makes frequent trips to meet with village leaders and re-assures them that he's not like his corrupt predecessor. He promises them that he only wants to help and he means it, but his promises are met with much skepticism from the leaders (most of whom are elderly, weathered men with dyed orange beards and flat, wary expressions on their faces). Kearney's building irritation with the fact that no one appreciates what he's attempting to do is one of the film's quietly moving elements.
After a while, you sense a certain rhythm developing as the film proceeds—laughter, tension, death, reflection—rinse and repeat ad nauseum. The moments of levity aren't an indication that the soldiers are having a grand old time in this living hell, but rather an attempt on their part to stay sane. The moments of warmth are necessary to the viewing experience as well; without them the film might have been exceedingly difficult to watch (ironically, it also would have been less gut-wrenching in some ways). Viewers of different backgrounds and political beliefs will take away different things from the film, but what I was left with was an overwhelming level of respect for what these soldiers are willing to put themselves through on a daily basis. Whether what we are doing in Afghanistan is right or wrong, these men deserve our utmost appreciation. By refusing to mindlessly wave flags or self-righteously point fingers, Restrepo offers American soldiers the moving portrait they deserve.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, though much of the raw footage that is used looks pretty rough. Some of the evening scenes are almost incomprehensibly murky and there's quite a lot of grain during most of the battle footage. The interview snippets look sharp and clear, however. Audio is fine, though similarly hit-and-miss depending on what the filmmakers had to work with. The filmmakers consciously avoid attempting to overdramatize things by adding a score or pumping up the sound effects in any way. Supplements include some deleted scenes, extended interviews, updates on the soldiers featured in the film, a photo gallery and PSAs from IAVA, Operation Homefront and TAPS. A thin package, but a commentary or making-of documentary might have betrayed the film's intent to offer a portrait of war in an objective manner.
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