Opens Fri., July 2
Ever since America was seduced by the meaningless but powerful claim that being against today’s wars was somehow equivalent to being “against the troops,” lefty filmmakers have sought to prove they were down with soldiers by staying resolutely “apolitical.” The 2004 documentary Gunner Palace bro’d down with grunts occupying central Baghdad; any commentary on the larger war was incidental. David Simon’s excellent Generation Kill sneaked in far more criticism, but mostly stayed observational.
The new doc Restrepo goes even further into ambiguity. The directors, journo Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) and photographer Tim Hetherington, stay religiously fly-on-the-wall, quietly observing a platoon of 15 American soldiers during a stint in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Aside from a handful of title cards, there is no context, no chats with experts or journalists, no additional rib-nudging by the filmmakers.
Restrepo tries to get us into the rhythm of a soldier's day-to-day, which, even in an area as fraught as Korengal is mostly doing nothing. Brief moments of chaotic violence, like the explosion that opens the film, pepper long stretches of tedium. Our heroes dick around on guitars, read magazines, talk shit. At one point they try to patch things up with locals over a cow that got mangled in wire. War is hell, as the saying goes; this one seems more like purgatory.
Post-Afghanistan interviews keep bumping us out of the monotonous groove, though. The soldiers’ frank, thoughtful insights deepen our understanding of the subject, but it’s at the expense of a singular film-watching experience, one that replicates the feeling of being a soldier posted in an alternately deadly and tedious locale. Restrepo is still essential viewing, but it would have been even better had the interviews been saved for the DVD special features.
Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light