Restrepo | Written and Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger | with Capt. Dan Kearney, 1st Sgt. Lamont Caldwell, Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice, Spec. Misha Pemble-Belkin, Spec. Kyle Steiner, Sgt. Aron Hijar, Staff Sgt. Joshua MCdonough, Sgt. Brendan O’byrne, Spec. Miguel Cortez, and Spec. Juan S. Restrepo | National Geographic Entertainment | 94 minutes
READ: Peter Keough's interview with Sebastian Junger
Before his name became that of a hellish outpost on a mountaintop in the Korengal Valley, perhaps the most dangerous place on earth, PFC Juan S. Restrepo was a human being, a 20-year-old single father, an accomplished guitarist, and a medic in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He is first seen in Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger's grunt-level documentary about the longest war in American history as he mugs for his digital camera along with the rest of his platoon on a train pre-deployment in Italy. They are about to hit Rome for their final bash before spending 15 months on the front lines. "You can't tame the beast!" he roars. "We're goin' to war!"
Everyone loved the guy. A couple of months later, Afghan insurgents killed him while he was on patrol. Stunned and in mourning, the surviving members of his platoon named the outpost after their friend.
And so war has gone, in essence, since the Iliad: young men fight and die, often in hostile alien lands, their names are commemorated, and their lives are forgotten. Hetherington and Junger endeavor to put that essence on the screen. Embedded with the troops, they capture the day-to-day routine of tedium, terror, exhilaration, and grief with handheld, breathless, sometimes battered fidelity, a world as far from a political context as the Restrepo outpost itself was from the rest of the world.
But you can't shape 150 hours of video into a coherent 94-minute film without some structure, and, perhaps unconsciously, the filmmakers resort to a template familiar from war films going back to World War II — not just the fictional ones in which a representatively disparate group of Americans bond together and test themselves to fulfill a deadly mission, but documentaries like John Huston's The Battle of SanPietro (1945), in which the reality of the mission proves to be tragic, and perhaps futile.
The commanding officer, the beefy, genial, but no-nonsense Dan Kearney, describes that mission as maintaining control of the valley that serves as a conduit for the Taliban between the refuge of Pakistan and the battlegrounds of Afghanistan. But for grunts like Misha Pemble-Belkin, who comes from a family of hippies and whose parents refused to let him play with toy guns, and Brendan O'Byrne, who comes from a family of heavy drinking, rifle-toting rednecks and whose first taste of incoming fire came when his dad shot him during an altercation, the mission is protecting the unit, getting off on combat, and enduring boredom.
As for the mission of Hetherington and Junger, it's to remain true to this amorphous but intense raw material while still imposing that coherent narrative arc. Their film starts with a bang, as we see first-hand what it's like to get hit by an IED while riding in a humvee, and then builds in suspense as the troops prepare for their bloodiest engagement, Operation Rock Avalanche, which shows one of the most wrenching displays of animal grief recorded on film.