Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****
Within America’s conversation about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan much criticism has been lobbed at journalists who reported from warzones while being embedded with the troops. Critics say a reporter’s chief concern should be objectivity which would (understandably) be comprised when sharing life and death situations on a daily basis. Proponents say it provides an invaluable view of war from the ground-eye perspective of the troops. I tend to fall in the latter category, and feel it’s a far more damning statement about the predicament of journalism that any one reporters’ work is expected (by editors or readers) to be all things to all people.
Restrepo [official site], the collaborative effort between author Sebastian Junger (who also penned the bestseller The Perfect Storm) and photographer Tim Hetherington, depicts five months (over the course of a year) spent at an outpost in the Korengal Valley, the most violent front in the Afghanistan war. The film -- which opened the Sundance film festival earlier this year and picked up the Grand Jury Prize --builds its story with on-the-ground footage as the soldiers inch along the valley, picking off Taliban members and trying to convince locals not to accept the $5/day payment to fight the United States on the Taliban’s behalf.
Restrepo’s press materials doggedly identify the film as both apolitical and being absolute reality. It presents the horrors and the boredoms of war, but the nature of filmmaking does not allow for straight across “truth”. What we see in Restrepo is more along the lines of what Werner Herzog has referred to as “the ecstatic truth” of these soldiers’ experiences. The film contains no interviews with diplomats or generals and what little context the filmmakers provide is presented via interviews with the surviving soldiers filmed months after the fact.
The only hard information we receive about strategy or who can be trusted in the villages is reflective of what the soldiers are experiencing at the time. Who to trust and whether the missions are being effective is always up in the air and the soldiers have to stay focused on immediate tasks in front of them and not allow themselves to think about the conditions too deeply. Some of their missions go very badly and the filmmakers resist the urge to ramp up the dramatic effect by giving us cues or exaggerated editing effects.
In Restrepo, we’ve come to understand certain universal experiences of war: young men using wrestling (or ultra-goofy dancing) as a substitute for physical contact, a minor miscommunication that results in bloodshed and a mid-battle freakout, representing in a way the audience, where we also learn a great deal about how the people around him react.
Ironically, this commitment to the experiential gives Restrepo a lot more in common with Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Academy Award winning fictional film The Hurt Locker than other recent war documentaries.
Extras on this Virgil Films DVD include an interview with the directors, extended interviews with soldiers and outtakes.
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