Directed by: Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Written by: N/A
Many fictional films attempt to recreate reality and make it into art, often asking us to project ourselves onto the characters. When a filmmaker embarks on a documentary, they are essentially cutting out the middle man (the actors) and attempting to create art out of life as it is being lived. Restrepo, a war documentary of a new order, is an unassuming work of insightful journalism and people under stress.
Soldiers in Korengal Valley, one of the deadliest battlegrounds in the current war in Afghanistan, live day-to-day in constant chaos. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger keep the audience in these moments as much as possible, with the excruciatingly loud bangs of their assault rifles and the whooshing sounds of landing helicopters. The only breaks from this combat are interviews with the soldiers shot in extreme close-up, and the occasional break showing them casually goofing off or chatting.
Humanizing these soldiers is of the essence to hit home the directors’ point: these are people fighting our war. A simple message, sure, but one that is most powerfully made by the actual people and not by actors. Obvious comparisons to The Hurt Locker will be made about Restrepo, as it is essentially a non-fiction take on that film. Its storytelling relies less on an auteur’s vision than on the subjects at hand, and while there are moments of searing emotion when a fellow comrade falls in battle, the redundant images of soldiers firing away at nothing loses its impact after being used a dozen or so times.
That’s not to say that Restrepo is not worthy of discussion or a viewing, as some of the footage these directors have gathered is unparalleled. It’s hard to imagine the courage it took to shoot the film armed with nothing but a camera as actual shots rang out around them. The deaths and injuries in the film feel excruciatingly real, even those of the often overlooked Afghan civilians. The death of one of the soldiers, “Doc” Restrepo, reverberates through the film and haunts the rest of the soldiers. They name their outpost in the valley after him, but its those home movies of him that bookend the film that shows how he is truly remembered.
Being put right in the middle of one of the most violent war zones on Earth means that a shootout could happen at any moment, and it feels like it in this movie. We watch the weary soldiers stalk through the mountains crouched and ready for battle, and it is consistently nerve-wracking.
The film is at its best when it shows the the soldiers taut with stress, and then the interviews that show their worn-down faces. Like the Best Picture winner before it, it succeeds because it doesn’t preach, but rather takes us to the edge of sanity and forces us to take a long look.