(With news of Hetherington's sudden death, thought I'd post this old article on the one documentary feature he directed...)
Top of the world, ma
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo (2010) focuses on the life of a platoon, stationed in what at one point is described as "the deadliest valley in Afghanistan." This is the Korangal Valley, in Kunar Province, the northeastern region of the country, and the men stay from May 2007 to July 2008, around fifteen months.
Hetherington (a veteran photojournalist), and Junger (author of A Perfect Storm) eschew any commentary or (for the most part) background music. There is little to no emotional manipulation in the raw footage, here; the filmmakers know their material is powerful enough without artificial enhancement. We see the soldiers a week before they mobilize, and in this early sequence we are given our brief glimpse of PFC Juan Restrepo, the army medic who is killed early in the campaign--he is larger than life here, all smiles and horseplay. His death is mentioned in passing by the soldiers, discussed more thoroughly by the same soldiers some months later, when the filmmakers interview them in Italy, fresh out of their military tour.
The film meanders as it introduces the men and their situation; perhaps the most vivid of these early moments comes when the men describe their location upon arrival a "shithole"--this while the handheld camera reveals a verdant valley full of giant cedar trees (one can imagine the fragrant cedar filling one's nose when wind sways the branches). The film comes into sharper focus when the platoon commander, Captain Kearney, establishes an outpost on a high mountaintop, and names it after their deceased comrade--as Kearney and his men put it, this "changed the dynamics of the valley," the outpost being the equivalent of "a middle finger sticking out" at the Taliban.
We never know for certain the true strategic value of O.P. Restrepo; we can only take the soldiers' word for it. We do see for ourselves the titanic struggle the men undergo, trying to establish the outpost--as Kearney puts it, they fight to establish a strategic foothold, turn around, drop their guns, pick up shovels, and dig to establish a foundational foothold. Once finished, one soldier notes that the crude little base barely deserved their friend's name--it mainly consisted of a hole scratched out of the ground, some corrugated tin for shelter, and HESCO bastions (steel-netted plastic barriers filled with dirt, named after the British company that mass-produces them) for protection against rockets and small-arms fire.
The film excels in this--showing not the larger meaning (that's up to us to suss out), but the minutiae of the soldiers' existence; not the purpose for which they fight (and, on occasion, die), but the how of their daily struggle, the boredom, the horseplay, the Christmas lights strung up in their self-constructed bunker in lieu of a tree. When a man falls, the camera captures not so much his death (no Hollywood-style slow motion plunge, accompanied by a syrupy arrangement of Barber's Adiago for Strings) as the wrenching emotional loss expressed by his comrades. This is an ant's eye view of battle--an ant in this case perched atop a particularly high hill.
This is not an objective documentary; if anything, it brings the American soldiers' experience closer to us, their faces presented like so many still, silent memorials to their sacrifice. At the same time, it makes no apologies towards the less appealing side of their efforts. Kearney tries to conduct a weekly shura, a town meeting, with the village elders nearby; he talks of the possibility of road constructions and money flowing into the region if the elders lend their support. The camera gazes into the elders' faces, and we see little to no enthusiasm in response to Kearney's words; he might as well be talking about constructing roads on the moon.
The elders are more emotional when a rocket attack is called in, and Kearney is summoned to witness the results: children wounded and shrieking in shock and fear, or dead and covered in grime. "These are angels," an elder exclaims. "Where is the Taliban here?" Kearney talks of frustration, and regret. He calls the civilian casualty "locals," and the jargon would seem devastatingly callous if Kearney wasn't so visibly shaken. Calling the dead and crying children "locals" is his way of keeping distance, of maintaining professional demeanor, of "processing" what he saw (the word is used several times in the film to presumably mean 'dealing with a traumatic experience'). Was this the best word to use in that situation? I don't think so, but it's probably the only word he's been trained to use, and to his credit you see the strain on his face when he tries to apply it.
Later we see soldiers firing a machine gun, and bragging proudly about how the bullets tore the enemy apart as he ran away; we see other soldiers playing a videogame--a shoot-em-up, of course--and it's easy to make the case that for some soldiers this (their outpost) is a game as well, the ultimate video game in the ultimate virtual environment, where you point your equipment, pull the trigger, and watch with delight as the enemy flies to pieces.
Such moments don't entirely demonize the soldiers, don't make them entirely monstrous, even if the implications of what they say or do can be monstrous; the film's finale ensures we retain some measure of sympathy for these young, young men. I do think the film taken as a whole humanizes them, in the very best sense--we see their vices as well as their virtues, we see them all around, we see what the human spirit is capable of in all its glorious and godawful diversity, when engaged in the enterprise called war. Restrepo in effect is a harrowingly comprehensive portrait of the soldier at war, and easily one of the best, most honest films of this year.
First published in Businessworld, 12.16.10