Restrepo captures the gradual evolution from the awful to the matter of fact—a vivid portrait of an everyday nightmare. In 2007, directors Tim Hetherington and bestselling author Sebastian Junger followed the Battle Company’s Second Platoon into the Korengal Valley, a nowhere land in eastern Afghanistan. The documentary opens with home-video footage of a soldier, the titular Restrepo, boasting in a fashion familiar to anyone who’s seen any number of fiction or nonfiction films—boasting born partially of cultural condition (let’s kick some fuckin’ ass!) and partially of feigned bravado on the part of understandably scared young men and women. Restrepo’s boasts are short-lived, however, as he takes two bullets in the neck early on, bleeding to death as his fellow soldiers try to stabilize him.
Restrepo, who in footage actually strikes us as one of the least sympathetic soldiers in the platoon, comes to assume a grander stature in the hearts of his fellow soldiers that he probably didn’t earn. This dead soldier comes to stand as a sign of perhaps unexpected difficulty and casualty; he’s a specter reminding the men of the humbling uncontrollable. But Restrepo also, soon after, becomes a sort of phoenix. The Second Platoon digs a dangerous second outpost closer to the center of the Taliban fighters hiding in the eerily remote valley, an action that boosts moral, providing the men with enough tangible accomplishment to get through the increasingly dangerous tasks that, to our eyes, seem nearly beside the point. This second outpost is ultimately called Restrepo.
The film is an odd, disconcerting mix of the ugly and the strangely beautiful. Quite a bit of it is necessarily shot in shaky handheld, as Hetherington and Junger thrust themselves in the middle of the platoon’s negotiations, skirmishes, and manual labor. But there are also wide, clearly composed shots that border on the lyrical: the smoke of a cigarette engulfing a soldier as he walks through the trees, the helicopters circling the mountains, even the gunfire that ruptures the illusory tranquility. The soldiers, with the partial exception of the new Captain Kearney, are hardly established for us as singular human beings, which is partially the point, as they’re necessarily a team above all at this station in their lives. We see the platoon’s awkward, culturally charged talks with the local elders in an effort to shake out the Taliban and establish a stable government influence—an effort that goes very wrong at one point, and Kearney’s business-as-usual accounting of innocent casualties will haunt you. We see the Second Platoon go on an operation that they know could be even more dangerous than usual, even for Korengal—a conflict that clearly left a mark on the men later on as the filmmakers interview them at their post in Italy afterward. We see the gunfire, the damage, the disappointments, the self-rationalizations, the violently charged—and homoerotic—horsing around, but rarely much in the way of quantifiable gain.
Restrepo is every bit as matter of fact as it sounds; larger context of a war that’s seemingly without conclusion is pointedly absent—though Junger’s companion book, WAR, supposedly offers more in the way of context. But Hetherington and Junger have, on their terms, delivered a pure, emotionally shattering documentation of the experience of going to battle. By emphasizing the day-in, day-out tedium of warfare above all else, the filmmakers seemingly—and disturbingly—equate the typical experience of an American soldier actively deployed to that of a blue-collar collar worker stuck in a particularly grueling shift in which the stakes just happen to be considerably higher. It’s a blue-collar job that can destroy you, whether you live through the operations or not. Restrepo illustrates the futility of war not in the grand gestures, but in the minute details that gradually grow to mass devastation.
The film's surprisingly varied visual texture is vivid and striking. The blues and whites of the sky, the browns of the huts and villages, the greens of the trees, and the grays and sudden oranges of the skirmishes all pop in clear and proper contrast to provide an enveloping viewing experience. The sound mix is even subtler (at times you can detect the varying sources of the bursts of gunfire). A superb presentation.
Restrepo is that rare contemporary film that probably has a legitimately interesting making-of story, so the extras strike one as adequate but disappointing. The deleted scenes and extended interviews are more valuable than usual, occasionally adding texture and detail to moments already in the documentary, but they were still understandably trimmed. The "Sleeping Soldiers" featurette is a sort of mash-up conceived by Tim Hetherington that layers scenes from the film over images of the soldiers sleeping, and it's the sort of self-consciously "emotional" lyricism that the proper film admirably resists. The "Updates on the Soldiers" feature is nice to read but unremarkable, and PSAs can only be so interesting in any context.
A superb presentation of a film that illustrates the futility of war not in the grand gestures, but in the minute details that gradually grow to mass devastation.