Day one of Sundance is now over, and it was quite interesting. Though we came at the absolute worst time of the week because all the films are showing next week, I still got to watch one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, “Restrepo.” I think many people felt the way I did about it, because after we left the screening, people looked, for lack of a better word, stricken and in despair.
The film, named after a soldier who is killed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, an area that was, for a time, called the deadliest place on earth, follows a platoon of combat infantry for one year through the first person perspective of two embedded journalists, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (they co-directed the film).
We don’t really know Restrepo. What we see at the beginning of the film is a video shot by Restrepo, in which he and three other members of the platoon are goofing off on a train heading to their deployment site, most likely in Italy. At the end of this short video (shot for family/friends back home), Restrepo says that when we next see him, he will be “going to war.”
We never physically see Restrepo again, though there are echoes of his presence throughout. Instead, we get a harrowing demonstration of one year in hell, during which the soldiers that Junger and Hetherington follow are constantly besieged by enemy fire, and in interviews conducted after their tour (15 months later), we see the emotional toll that their time in Korengal has taken on them.
The film is powerful because of its honest portrayal of what it means to be a soldier and, really, what it means to retain one’s sense of humanity when people around one are dying. There is very little violent content, and we never see who the soldiers are fighting (and neither do they), which is ironic. Perhaps we’ve seen too many violent films, because throughout the first twenty or so minutes, I had the sneaking desire to see someone actually get shot, which is a wholly disturbing idea.
A few touching moments stand out: a soldier who has just been involved in an act of hazing is told that “we’re making a man out of him” while a black lab puppy licks his hand. In another, three soldiers unabashedly dance to a pop song inside their makeshift barracks. A third, more tragic scene shows a soldier having an emotional breakdown on the battlefield while another tells him “Don’t look. You don’t want to look” in reference to another soldier (not Restrepo) who has just been killed. In a fourth, a post-tour interview in reference to the dead soldier, a soldier says “I wanted to cry but I couldn’t.” In a fifth, a soldier fixing the placement of a machine gun has a radio conversation with another soldier who asks about what kind of ranch he lives on, and whether it has “cows and stuff.”
We see glimpses of violence – a soldier with a blood stained back and hands, an IED exploding under a Humvee while the cameraman is inside, and a child inadvertently killed during a mission, but most important and profound are the testimonies of the men themselves, taken after the fact, in concert with the footage shot by Junger and Hetherington.
Films that stand alongside this one in terms of thematic structure and their ability to expose the humanity evident in every soldier: “Jarhead,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Platoon.” “Restrepo” is more subtle about its ends, but no less forceful.
Two quotes come to mind when I think about how best to sum up this film. One is from another Afghanistan film released last year, “Brothers,” in which the main character says, “Who was it that said only the dead have seen the end of war? I have seen the end of war. The question is, how do I go on living?”
The other quote is from Sebastian Junger, who was present with Hetherington at the premiere and answered a few questions. When asked about how people as citizens should go about helping these soldiers recover and readjust to society, he said that “no matter how you feel about the war, and no, war is not fun, no one should like it; no matter how you feel or what kind of political stance you have, just tell them you understand.”
This film goes a long way towards showing us how we can all understand.