Restrepo may be the year’s best movie; it will almost certainly end up on my best of 2010 list. It is a cunningly crafted documentary that follows a platoon of soldiers during their 15 month tour in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous regions of that country. U.S. soldiers faced fire every day when they arrived in late 2007 and the movie throws us into the constant shooting, so much so that I reached a point of thinking I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but then I felt a little silly. After all, I was sitting through a two hour movie while these guys lived this. A movie can never proffer absolute understanding about warfare for a lifelong civilian like myself, but this movie may be the closest one can come to it.
Restrepo avoids a phony narrative structure like last year’s over praised Hurt Locker and simply slips into the daily routines of these men. There were moments when the almost lackadaisical narrative had me scratching my head, but in the end it worked. Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger set out to chronicle the lives of these soldiers with no distractions. They talk to no one else, they include no background and that is a strength in helping us to understand how these men live day to day. That their daily lives include habitual shooting and explosions is hard to wrap our minds around. At one point, after the several members of the platoon have ended a firefight with the enemy (always unseen in the wilderness of the valley), one of the men is giddy with adrenaline. He says, pure joy in his eyes, that there is no rush like being shot at. Nothing can compare, no drugs, no extreme sport, nothing. The gleam in his eyes is unnerving. When one of the directors interrupts his rush to ask him how he will be able to return to civilian life we see the exhilaration drain from his face as he realizes he’s saying things that those of us over here will not and cannot understand. He simply says he doesn’t know and the sadness and fear in his voice betray a deeper anxiety about how his experiences in Afghanistan are going to affect a transition back to civilian life.
To limit the ability of the Taliban to attack their platoon, a plan is hatched to build an outpost on a hill overlooking the village nearby their base. They come to name the base Outpost Restrepo, after one of their comrades killed early on in their mission. The rest of the movie is punctuated by references to and stories about Juan “Doc” Restrepo. The men miss him and are haunted by his loss, but does the outpost really embody the man they knew and loved? Probably not, but they feel like they need to do something to keep his memory alive.
We expect to see death in movies and documentaries about war, but what we don’t expect to see is the depth and immediacy of the emotions that Hetherington and Junger captured on film. In a particularly intense battle several men are injured. When news reaches some of them that one has died we see a gut-retching reaction that no screenwriter, no director, and no actor could have invented. It is a startlingly raw moment that catches us off guard, the memory of which I have not been able to shake since seeing the picture two days ago.
Though the movie does not take any political position, it does show how futile things really are there. A striking – and disturbing – thing about the movie is how little understanding there is of the locals. The platoon commander attends regular meetings with the village elders but there is so little respect for them that we begin to wonder why he goes. He makes lots of promises about what the U.S. can do for them, but they know better. They understand that the U.S. soldiers will leave one day, but the Taliban isn’t going anywhere. They are hedging their bets, hoping not to offend either force so they and their families can continue living without the bother of warfare.
It’s hard to understand how the military expects to win the “hearts and minds” (a phrase disturbingly resuscitated from the Vietnam War era) when they clearly have no respect for the people or their way of life. When a cow gets caught in military wires and has to be shot, the owner turns up to be reimbursed. That sounds reasonable to anyone who has ever watched an episode of Judge Judy, but word comes down that they will only give the man beans, rice, and sugar in a weight proportionate to the weight of the cow (that there is some indication the men of the platoon ate). I don’t know how they expect to win friends when they kill a cow, an animal that can provide nourishment for years, and expect the owner to be satisfied with rice and beans that will not last more than a season.
Hetherington and Junger avoid politics but then so do their subjects. Not once does someone in the movie say “This is important because…” or “We are fighting for…” One soldier makes a vague reference about joining the army so he could fight for his country, but nothing about what they are doing in Afghanistan. Our sinking suspicion that everything they are doing is fairly useless in the long run is confirmed by a tag at the end of the movie that confirms U.S. forces evacuated the Korengal Valley early this year. So what are we doing to our soldiers over there? The original goal was to fight terrorism, but I didn’t see much anti-terrorism or anti-al Qaeda activities. I didn’t get the sense that they were protecting us from terrorism so much as our soldiers were the ones being terrorized. Is there a subconscious desire by U.S policymakers to sacrifice our troops for a fuzzy and unsustainable promise of safety at home? If they take the brunt then we can be secure? That seems to be the case because these men are coming back scarred. In an interview conducted after the tour in the Korengal, one young soldier talks about all the sleeping pills he has tried and how none have worked. He says he would rather stay awake than fall asleep and have the nightmares that have plagued him since his return. He smiles – the nervous smile of a man who uses levity to mask pain – but the seriousness of it all hits him, his smile fades and we see a man unable to cope with his experiences. But his sacrifices, if the would be Times Square bomber is any indication, aren’t making us any safer.
Our country doesn’t have a great track record of learning from history. I mean we are having the same tired arguments about how to fix the economy that Roosevelt settled in the 1930s. And here we are having the same arguments about how to win a war of occupation in Asia that we had during the Vietnam War. It would be funny if there weren’t real people being hurt and killed and Restrepo succeeds in humanizing the war. It reminds us that all our high minded arguments about freedom and our hawkish tendencies have very real consequences that we as a nation are still are not willing to confront, especially when it comes to mental health for veterans. I hope this movie will readjust the argument away from winning some elusive and ill-defined victory and towards doing what is right for both Afghanistan and our troops. Kudos to Hetherington and Junger for not just having the guts to follow these men into battle (which is huge by itself), but also for having the skills to put the material they filmed to good use and create a great movie.