REVIEW: Low-Key, High-Octane Restrepo Captures War's Everyday Realities

Movieline Score:

In early summer 2007, filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington settled in with a platoon of 15 soldiers newly arrived in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold considered one of the most dangerous postings in the war. Restrepo, the movie they made there, is remarkable not because it heightens the drama of the combat experience -- one that, face it, doesn't need any heightening via filmmaking magic -- but because it so unassumingly captures the everyday rhythms of these soldiers' lives. One minute they're ducking Taliban bullets that come seemingly from nowhere. The next they're cutting loose at an impromptu nighttime disco party, a short one (apparently dictated by the length of one dance track queued up on an iPod) and one with only four guys total. But the basic image -- the sight of young people dancing and horsing around -- is so joyous and elemental that it's nearly devastating: Only then do we get the full measure of what it means that those bullets missed.

Or to put it another way: The low-key quality of the filmmaking in Restrepo only intensifies the reality of how much these kids are risking. Restrepo was shot mostly in Afghanistan -- that footage is presented simply, without music or anything but the most bare-bones editing, and, as Junger has noted in some of the interviews he's given, it includes only things that the soldiers themselves would have experienced. (Junger and Hetherington didn't, for example, interview any generals, because interviewing generals wouldn't have been part of the soldiers' experience.) The Afghan footage is intercut with studio interviews conducted with the guys after the fact, in which they give us a sense of who they are (the baby-faced Pemble, for example, is from Oregon, and his hippie-mom wouldn't let him have sugar until he was 13) and how their experience in Afghanistan affected them (Cortez, from Indianapolis, has trouble sleeping since he returned from his tour of duty -- though he admits he'd rather endure sleeplessness than face his recurring nightmares).

The movie opens with some casually raw, homemade-looking footage of the soldiers made just one week before their deployment. They mug and act out for the camera -- they're in obviously, if artificially, high spirits. That's when we first meet Juan "Doc" Restrepo, but beyond what the soldiers tell us about him later (which isn't much), we never get to know him: He's dead, killed in action, before the movie gets going.

Restrepo may mean little to us, but his loss sure means something to the men in his platoon. Part of their mission is to build an outpost in the Korengal, and they name it after their dead friend, although at first they express doubts about naming anything in this godforsaken territory after him. Restrepo follows the men's everyday routine, which would be neither routine nor everyday for most of us. They query the locals for information about Taliban hideouts, and their captain, the lantern-jawed Dan Kearney, meets weekly with the community elders to maintain good relationships with them. (Though part of what he does, unfortunately, is make promises that will be difficult if not impossible to keep, like offering jobs and health care in return for their cooperation.) The guys spend a great deal of time just building this new outpost, as well as maintaining their firearms. (In one of the movie's funniest sequences, a soldier tries to assemble a large and complicated-looking automatic weapon as he fields questions, via walkie-talkie, from one of his buddies about the ranch his family lives on: "Your family has a ranch?" asks the disembodied, incredulous voice. He presses on: "Like, a 'cows and horses and chickens' ranch?")

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