Restrepo is a documentary about a US Army base in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. It is the effort of noted writer Sebastian Junger, whose book The Perfect Storm was the source material for George Clooney movie of same name, and British photographer and documentarian Tin Hetherington. The two embedded with the 2nd platoon of the Army's 173rd Airborne, who are assigned to the Korengal in Summer 2007. Taking daily fire from Taliban forces, the commander decides to essentially leapfrog his opponents by building a smaller outpost that can put Army eyes on some of the attack routes. That outpost is named Restrepo, after one of the soldiers killed by the Taliban, and that in turn the name of the movie.
Cinematically, the film is certainly to be recommended. The filmmakers were embedded for an extended period. When the bullets were flying, when the firefights were raging, when the unit was out on a dangerous patrol in areas ceded to the Taliban, the filmmakers were there. So they earned the right to film up close and personal, and we are there. In that regard the film is a lot like the often powerful work of documentarian Frederic Wiseman, whose Titticut Follies or Basic Training are pioneeering works of cinema. One major difference: after their tour the soldiers in the unit were interviewed in Italy on their way back home. This adds perspective, but at the cost of adding an element straight out of modern reality TV to the formal verite lines of the film.
Alas, there's one thing that seriously detracts from the film's claims to the cinema verite label. We are embedded with a unit that is fighting and dying, and we see no blood. Soldier dies, the film pans delicately to his boot. I can blame the filmmakers a little for this, but not a lot. Their film reflects an American mores in which blood in war is supposed to hide out only in fiction. If the NY Times or Washington Post puts too graphic a picture on its front page there are howls of outrage at the idea that innocent children might be exposed. Sticky wicket here because you are embedded and close to the men and arguably should have some respect for their privacy, but when the bloodlessness calls attention to itself that's a mistake too. There's a lot of build-up in the movie for Operation Rock Avalanche, when the Army forces decide to build on their success erecting Restrepo by going on actual patrol in a part of the terrain that the Army hasn't given the boots-on-ground treatment to, which is certain to and does result in combat with the Taliban who are happy to wage war on their own turf. But almost all the bad stuff that happens in Rock Avalanche, we get described by the soldiers during their well after-the-fact interviews in Italy. Even though the embedded journalists are out on patrol, with their cameras, almost certainly taking footage that could better depict what's happening -- and maybe even without being the most graphic parts of that footage.
Because of its verite elements this is very really what it's like to be a GI in the middle of nowhere on Afghanistan. The isolation, the band of brothers, the day-to-day, the professionalism, the challenge of winning hearts ands minds of the people you're fighting. There's a lot to learn by sitting and watching.
One on level, the movie's a kind of success story. Army lives are lost, but Restrepo does succeed in blocking the Taliban paths to the main outpost, considerably reducing the level of attacks.
But there's also a pointlessness to the whole affair, on two levels.
First, we can learn a lot and still learn nothing, by which I mean that you're unlikely to leave Restropo thinking any differently about the war than you did before the coming attractions. It's grunt's eye POV makes it very easy to take from the movie whatever lessons you most feel like takng.
Which to me is the second poiintlessness. We as a country cannot afford to fight them over there so they don't attack us here when the over there means the Korengal Valley, backwards people clinging to a bare sustenance existence in ramshackle houses clinging to the sides of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. If we can't take the best shot these people have to offer and bounce back from whatever blow that might be, then Western civilization is as hollow and doomed as the Soviet Union in 1985. This isn't to say that these people can't do us harm; I woke up on September 11, 2001 planning to visit the Borders at the World Trade Center after work. I was in London a month after the 7/7 subway bombings. I know what can happen. But we cannot win that battle posting troops on the Korengal.
And in fact the Korengal was abandoned by the US Army subsequent to the events seen here. 50 soldiers lost their lives in the Valley. That doesn't account for the opportunity cost of what else we could have done with the resources we poured into the Korengal.
How much would it cost to have a propaganda machine that tries to point out all the Muslim-on-Muslim suicide bombings that take place on a weekly if not daily basis vs how much we spent in the Korengal? If we don't have the ability to wage a war like that, we can pour all the resources we want into Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, anywhere, and we aren't going to accomplish anything except bankrupting ourselves well before exposing the bankrupt ideology of our opponents. We probably should invest in schools in Afghanistan because literate people are more likely to make good Afghan policeman and less likely to buy what the Taliban are selling. But we can also invest in things like high-speed rail in the US, streets in NYC that aren't riddled with potholes and pavement seams, a National Mall in DC that doesn't look like the dust bowl. Only, we can't do that so well when we're pouring money into the Korengal.
In any event, this is a film worth seeing, very well worth seeing. We've seen a lot of documentaries or realistic enough fiction films about the Baghdad or Iraqi desert side of our wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the POV we get in Restrepo we've seen hardly at all. This would be an excellent way of broadening perspective even were it not just about the only way of doing it.
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- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.