Many war movies, especially contemporary ones about Iraq and Afghanistan, offer viewers a distinct perspective from the point of view of the filmmaker. Even many documentaries don’t stay neutral about the conflict they’re covering.
That is not the case with “Restrepo,” a new film by Vanity Fair contributor and author Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington. The film is a true fly-on-the-wall account of what it is like to be deployed in a war zone.
The documentary, which supplements the book “War” by Junger and Hetherington, came out of a 10-trip assignment to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan while the two were on assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News. The military screened the movie for privacy and national security concerns, but the filmmakers’ work wasn’t censored.
The film follows the 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in the remote valley. It’s one of the most difficult places to be stationed in the country — 70 percent of all ordnance is exploded in the valley. Viewers see images of war, reflections from soldiers and raw emotions from those who have volunteered to serve their country.
The film reveals the highs and lows of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. One day, bombs are inadvertently falling on innocent women and children, and the soldiers featured are left to clean up the mess. The next week, they have to explain their mistake to a group of tribal elders and how it’s going to be made right.
But this war isn’t like past wars. One incident featured in the film that provides a break in the combat is the request from an Afghan who wanted reimbursement for a cow that had wandered into the wire fence surrounding the American camp, had gotten mutilated and needed to be killed. He wasn’t reimbursed.
The captain of the brigade, Dan Kearney, provides the viewers with their most sympathetic character. He comes off as conflicted, yet he does what he believes is right. He mourns the loss of fellow soldier Juan Restrepo, whom the brigade’s newly constructed outpost and the film is named after, while at the same time encouraging his soldiers to complete the mission. It is men like Kearney whom the film wisely highlights, showing that war isn’t as cut and dried as some films might have you believe.
What’s so refreshing about “Restrepo” is that it runs like a 90-minute deployment in Afghanistan. The viewer is simply along for the ride. It’s like being up close to the action, without having to fear that the bullets flying at the featured soldiers will pierce the movie screen.
Those soldiers could easily be your sons, brothers, neighbors or friends. Hearing them talk about their experiences can be frightening knowing how real the action they’re seeing really is. But like combat itself, it’s not nonstop action. Humor, manual labor, creative outlets, dancing, terror and boredom are all featured, just like your average deployment, whether it’s 90 minutes or many years.
“Restrepo” opens at Landmark E Street Cinema on Friday and at the AMC Loews Shirlington on July 16. The film will also be shown on the National Geographic Channel in November and available on DVD in the fall.