Both Restrepo and Lebanon are war-is-hell movies, be-glad-you’re-not-here postcards about young men marooned in outposts at the outer edges of intractable wars (the U.S occupation of Afghanistan and Israel’s battle with its neighbors, respectively). But where one uses reportorial techniques in search of clarity and objective truth, the other creates a choking miasma of claustrophia, confusion and deepening panic to approximate its main character’s state of mind.
Lebanon is a fictionalized version of writer/director Samuel Maoz’s experience in the 1982 Lebanon war, which will open next week (I saw it at a press screening a couple of weeks ago). It takes place almost entirely inside a dank, noisy tank whose mentally deteriorating officer and tiny crew bumble their way into a Lebanese town to “clean up” after an Israeli attack and then get hopelessly lost in Syrian-controlled territory. The tight quarters and growing desperation create a convincing sense of hellish chaos—to a fault, at times, since it isn’t always clear where things are in relation to each other even inside the tank. But it all feels a little too scripted at times, like when a soldier asks if his parents can be alerted that he’s all right, only to die a while later.
Lebanon isn’t nearly as thought-provoking or moving as Waltz with Bashir, another Israeli soldier’s reconstruction of his experience in Lebanon that year. But there are things in this movie too that I don’t expect to forget any time soon, like the people who drop into the tank from the turret above like visitors from another world, the grief-crazed Lebanese woman seen through the gunner’s crosshairs, or the field of dying sunflowers that opens the movie and takes on new meaning at the end. If you think of a tank as an impermeable behemoth operated by faceless men, this film will make you think again.
Codirectors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger shot their Afghanistan documentary in classic fly-on-the-wall mode. You’re almost never aware of the filmmakers’ presence in Restrepo, except when they capture the men one by one against a black backdrop, asking ask them about their experiences at Restrepo. The soldiers manned the American outpost, then the deadliest one in Afghanistan, from May 2007 into 2008, and the filmmakers are there for most of that time. Their film describes the situation clearly—we always know just where the men are and what they’re doing there—but never editorializes, neither criticizing nor praising the mission the men are on (no Hans Zimmer-scored heroics here, thank goodness). A sense of futility does leak through at times, in things like one soldier’s observation that they’re losing ground with the local village elders in spite of meeting with them every week, but the focus is on capturing the rhythms of life and death at the outpost.
Hetherington and Junger made 10 trips to Korangal Valley over a 10-month period, shooting 150 hours of film. The camera pushes right into the soldiers’ faces for the talking-heads interviews, shooting just from eyebrow to lower lip as the men, who come across as honest, observant and thoughtful, talk about their experiences. The rest of the time we watch their characters and camaraderie emerge as they go about their daily lives at Restrepo, doing things like dancing ecstatically to hip-hop, playing soulful acoustic guitar and video war games, or memorializing Juan Restrepo, the fallen comrade the outpost is named after (they shoot off eerily beautiful nighttime flares a year after his death.)
We see them shoot and get shot at too, but those aren’t usually the most memorable scenes, though they were no doubt the most intense to experience. Junger and Hetherington put us right in the middle of the fighting, starting with an IED explosion that shakes the cameraman’s vehicle as he films their first ride into camp. We also see scenes from the three-day maneuver they describe as their worst, including one soldier’s breakdown after seeing a dead comrade. I felt uncomfortable about my own comfort as I watched those scenes from my cushy theater seat, but there it was. The dead bodies certainly had a weight they wouldn’t have in a Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone fest, and so did the loss of Restrepo, whose spirit the filmmakers summon through the affectionate stories and impressions of his friends and a few seconds of blurred video. I left Restrepo full of respect for the soldiers and sorrow over the deadly flypaper they and the Afghan civilians in the valley were stuck in, but a noncombatant like me can never really know what a soldier at war is going through, no matter how hard the filmmakers work to reenact it or I work to understand. And even if I could share the men’s feelings, I wouldn’t share their fear of death when they go on that maneuver, since I’m watching after the fact and safe in the knowledge that they survived to tell the story. It’s the catch-22 of war-is-hell documentaries.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.