photo credit: Tim Hetherington

‘Restrepo’ documents the daily lives of a group of soldiers stationed at the eponymous outpost in the notorious Korangel valley in northeastern Afghanistan. Shot over the course of 15 months in 2007 and 2008 by co-creators Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, it is perhaps the most absorbing piece of film-making in recent memory. The movie accompanies Junger’s recently-released book ‘War’, and follows the members of Battle Company, of the 173rd US Airborne Division.

For those of us who have little or no conception of the conditions in combat areas such as the Korangel outpost (known to the soldiers as “the KOP”), ‘Restrepo’ provides the insight that is so desperately needed. The film opens with four of the soldiers riding a train to Rome for a final night on the town before they deploy to Afghanistan. Though we viewers don’t know it, amongst them is Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, the medic for whom the remote and perilous outpost is named in memoriam. They joke and laugh and swig beer as the hand-held camera flicks back and forth between them. Casual references to what awaits them overseas are made, but for tonight they are just enjoying each other’s company and goofing around as young men so happily do. Half a second later, we plummet headfirst into chaos.

What follows is an unapologetic and unvarnished look into the lives of Battle Company, a squad of soldiers given the task of securing a forward position in the valley and preparing the area for the construction of a road. The end goal is two-fold: first, to assume control of the valley and gain the strategic advantage of proximity to the porous Pakistan border. Second, to breathe life into the area by enabling the delivery of farming supplies and building materials, thus immeasurably improving the existence of the valley’s inhabitants. It is easy to see why this project would be so valuable: the terrain is almost impassable with sheer cliffs and rocky, dangerously unstable paths barely wide enough to accommodate men traveling them on foot. The hills are infested with Taliban, too, so the possibility of ambush at every turn haunts the members of Battle Company as they try to complete their mission in the most trying of circumstances.

What sets ‘Restrepo’ apart from other documentaries about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there is no apparent political agenda. This story is not about the war itself, or the ideology behind it, or the empty musings of politicians or military spokespeople. It is about the men on the front lines: their challenges, their successes, their torments and, sometimes, their despair.

In one of the most harrowing scenes, Staff Sargeant Larry Rougle is mortally wounded in a surprise firefight. For some of the men he commanded the pressure of combat becomes too much and they are reduced to tears. For others, his death hardens their determination and they resolve to get their revenge. This is one of the many moments in the film that gives the viewer pause and bids him/her to ask a question of themselves: which soldier would you be, the one who remains strong or who starts to crack?

Other illuminating scenes have nothing to do with actual combat. They involve Captain (now Major) Dan Kearney holding weekly meetings (known as ‘shuras’) with local village elders to try and foster better relationships with them, and to sell them on the second part of the two-fold goal described above. The futility of these meetings is immediately obvious, from the language barrier, to the total opposition of priorities, to the relentless references to former squad leaders whose approach to community relations left much to be desired. One cannot shake the feeling that with even the best intentions, the presence of Battle Company in the Korangel will always be viewed by the locals with suspicion, or worse, outright hostility.

The film has its lighter moments, too. The soldiers, in rare periods of calm, do what they can to amuse themselves. There is banter, practical jokes, and ribbing of new recruits but, far from making light of what is a very serious situation, these scenes serve to humanize the men whose difficult lives we are briefly looking into. These little sparks of levity burn far more brightly set against, as they are, such a dark backdrop.

The movie has less time to devote to individual stories, which is where Junger’s best-seller ‘War’ comes in. The book delves much deeper into the lives of the soldiers so a viewer who wants to get a complete sense of the personalities of the featured soldiers would be well-served to pick up a copy.

‘Restrepo’ is so memorable for the way in which it simply follows the soldiers as they go about their business. There is no commentary, no obvious bias, just a wake-up call for the country to remember that there is still a war going on and the cost is so much more than just financial. These men are human beings with lives beyond military service, and they bring with them all the associated hopes, dreams and plans for the future.

About mid-way through the movie one such soldier is at his post, tinkering with a huge machine gun, trying to position it correctly. Over the radio, a friend is asking him about a recent trip home, how his family are doing and other things.

“It was good to spend some time at the ranch.” says the young man.
A beat or two of silence passes. “Your family owns a ranch?” asks the fuzzy, disembodied voice.
“Like with horses and cows?”
“No,” the soldier replies. “Just land where you can hunt stuff.”
More silence. “So its just a big piece of land where you can shoot at things?”
The radio crackles. “Kind of like here, then.”
The young soldier glances at the camera and laughs. He clicks his radio back on. “Hearts and minds, man.”

‘Restrepo’ will be showing at the Landmark E Street Cinema, the Landmark Bethesa Row Cinema and at the AMC Shirlington 7 from July 9.

‘War’ by Sebastian Junger is out now.

Culture ‘Restrepo’ at the National Geographic Museum