Early on in Restrepo, National Geographic’s powerful but largely unsatisfying documentary about a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan, someone makes a joking reference to the old wartime adage about winning hearts and minds. Hearing it, I was reminded of 1975 Oscar winner Hearts and Minds, the wildly controversial anti-Vietnam War documentary that had a huge influence on Michael Moore, among others.
Restrepo, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is part of a backlash against the tub-thumping pictures that have dominated nonfiction filmmaking in recent years.
Restrepo is the antithesis of that sort of advocacy filmmaking. It deliberately ignores the forest – that is, the war – and focuses not merely on the trees, but on the grain of the bark and the veins in the leaves. Its co-directors, seasoned combat journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, are so embedded with this group of soldiers that they capture things we normally only see in fictional war movies – most jarringly, the immediate grief and rage that follows the sudden death of a comrade in battle.
I found myself admiring Hetherington and Junger’s reportorial objectivity but questioning the value of a documentary that doesn’t address the bigger questions about a campaign as contentious as the one in Afghanistan. Especially since the grunt’s-eye-view of war has been presented so effectively of late in dramatic form, from HBO’s Generation Kill to this year’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.
Restrepo takes us to the Korengal Valley, the infamous "Valley of Death" in northeastern Afghanistan, where fighting against the Taliban has been so bloody and futile that U.S. forces withdrew from it earlier this year. Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed there for 15 months, from May 2007 to July 2008. During that period, Hetherington and Junger’s cameras followed one of the company’s platoons as it attempted to establish a ramshackle outpost in the midst of enemy territory. The men dub their outpost "Restrepo" in honour of the platoon’s medic, Pte. Juan (Doc) Restrepo, who was killed in a firefight shortly after their arrival.
VIDEO: Susan Ormiston interviews Sebastian Junger, co-director of Restrepo
This is war at the ground and gut level. The only "big picture" referred to is the U.S. military’s mission to provide security so a road can be carved through the valley. The platoon’s captain, Dan Kearney, has two basic goals: to build the Restrepo outpost and to rectify some of his predecessor’s gaffes in his dealings with the local villagers. Capt. Kearney and his men don’t discuss why they are fighting or express any political viewpoint beyond simple patriotism. One soldier, Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin, talks about being raised by hippie parents who wouldn’t let him play with toy guns, but we never learn why he ended up joining the army. Did he become disillusioned with his parents’ pacifism? Or was it just an act of youthful rebellion?
The soldiers are unflinchingly candid, however, when discussing their feelings. The platoon members were interviewed in Italy three months after leaving Korengal, and their reflections are intercut with footage from their tour of duty. Looking back, they discuss their emotions at the time (Sgt. Miguel Cortez admits he saw the valley and thought, I’m going to die here) and continue to grapple with the deaths of their comrades. In the field, we watch a passionate pep talk by Kearney following one of those deaths, which underscores how revenge is an even more effective motive than patriotism when you’re asking men to kill.
Fighting, though, is only a small part of the film. Junger and Hetherington catch the boredom between the battles, the kibitzing, the wrestling matches. In one deliriously goofy scene that recalls a recent YouTube video, a bunch of the soldiers blow off steam by dancing wildly to Samantha Fox’s Touch Me. More sobering – and frustrating – are the episodes in which Kearney meets with the local elders. We’re reminded again of the wide cultural gaps that separate the two sides and how difficult it is for a well-meaning but simple soldier to bridge them when he can’t even speak the Korengali language.
In his retrospective interview, Kearney all but admits his naiveté about going into the Korengal Valley. He also expresses regret over an attack on insurgents that killed villagers and injured children in the process. His men – some with kids themselves – have little to say about it. Maybe it’s something you can’t dwell on if you’re a soldier with a job to do. For me, though, the brief glimpses of wounded and frightened children were enough to break the film’s band-of-brothers spell. War is not just about men enduring hell together, it’s also about innocent victims.
Hetherington, a British-born photographer, and best-selling U.S. author Junger (The Perfect Storm) realize that, too, but it’s not within their film’s narrow range of vision. If it was, it might force them to address wider issues than just the experience of soldiering and to possibly take a stance. It could be that Restrepo, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival, is part of a backlash against the kind of tub-thumping pictures (the Michael Moore canon, An Inconvenient Truth) that have dominated nonfiction filmmaking in recent years. After Moore's last doc, the sloppy Capitalism: A Love Story, one can appreciate this rigorous, just-the-facts approach.
Still, Restrepo doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know about soldiers at war. You leave the Korengal Valley feeling there's a more important story to be told. Who are these villagers that continue to live in this forbidding region? How did they react to meeting with the U.S. military? And why weren’t the Americans able to win their hearts and minds?
Restrepo opens in Toronto on July 16.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.