Moviemakers like to try to scare us with fake documentaries about demons and spooks, but a real doc coming to the Roxy in the near future is scarier than any of them. Restrepo follows a U.S. platoon’s yearlong tour of duty in a remote, dangerous part of Afghanistan.
Director-journalists Sebastian Junger (who wrote The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington lived with the soldiers at their outpost in the Korengal Valley, shared their hardships and gained their trust. They came back with footage so intimate you may sometimes feel guilty watching it. The filmmakers present it all without narration or commentary, except for what the soldiers had to say in interviews conducted after their deployment.
Does anyone remember Lions for Lambs? Just me? At the core of Robert Redford’s 2007 stab at a war movie was the provocative contrast between two earnest young men who were carrying out a deadly mission in Afghanistan and a smart-ass college kid who couldn’t even be bothered to make it to class. It would have been gripping if the film’s token soldiers hadn’t felt like a scriptwriter’s cardboard cutouts.
Restrepo is the movie Redford wanted to make — or should have wanted to make. Its “lions” aren’t cardboard: They smoke and strum guitars and cuss and horse around. Like the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” which was based on an embedded journalist’s account of the Iraq invasion, Restrepo has no dramatic arc: It’s about constant, grinding stress, which is the antithesis of drama.
In a war zone, tension seems to coexist just fine with boredom. We see both on the face of a soldier who phones his superiors to find out if he can reimburse a village elder for the accidental death of his cow. Like many of these nonactors, he has a face that speaks volumes about frustration and disaffection, but also about the humor that helps relieve the stir-craziness.
As Sgt. Joshua McDonough points out, these men experience a level of stress almost unprecedented in recent warfare: “[The Army hasn’t] had to deal with people like us since World War II and Vietnam,” he says. Another soldier admits there’s something addictive about the adrenaline: The sensation of being shot at is “like crack.” But when a friend dies — Restrepo is an outpost named for Juan “Doc” Restrepo, who was shot in the neck — his loss is not easy for the soldiers process.
Nor are films about our current conflicts, apparently, because hardly anyone sees them: The Hurt Locker was the lowest-grossing Best Picture Academy Award winner ever.
Who can be blamed for wanting to curl up with “Top Chef” instead of paying to see decent-seeming people grapple with a shitty situation? “I need to know better. I need to figure this stuff out better,” says Capt. Dan Kearney, through gritted teeth, about an incident of civilian casualties. Does he care about the Afghans, or just about the mission objectives? Will he figure stuff out? We don’t know. But it’s hard to watch the film without feeling a deep empathy for these guys, partly because they relate to the camera like it’s a comrade, not an intruder.
Restrepo raises more questions about the war than it answers, and some viewers won’t like that. In a directors’ statement, Junger and Hetherington explain their choice not to give the film a political spin by saying, “Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.” Of course, as the great documentarian Fred Wiseman pointed out, filmmakers’ “reality” takes form in the editing room. There is no pure, belief-free cinema verité.
Still, my guess is that anyone who sees Restrepo with an open mind will come out saying, “I learned something I didn’t know.” Reminding us how much we don’t know, how much our beliefs are based on assumptions and leaps of faith — isn’t that what docs should do? It may even be worth going to the theater to see some unchoreographed, unfun violence that really happened.