“How are you going to go back to the civilian world?”
“I have no idea.”
A documentary is not the gospel, yet they’re treated most times as absolute truth. Sadly, most historical dramatizations committed to film are treated this way. Witness Oliver Stone’s JFK. We feel that “fact” is presented before us on the screen, that in no way is there an agenda from the filmmaker. We may feel a documentary by definition is supposed to be the flicking on of a camera for an unbiased observation of a subject, but there’s at least one if not many visions fashioning it; there’s a message the filmmaker intends to impart to you and to bandy around the term “objective opinion” doesn’t ever absolve it enough to be carved into even the softest sandstone.
With this perhaps harsh opening admonishment, but remembering what a joke the word ”embedded” became during the Iraq war, Restrepo is a film very much worth seeing.
Named for a comrade killed early in the 2007 deployment of Second Platoon Battle Company to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, and made by writer/journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington, Restrepo is also the name of the outpost set up by these soldiers to police some of the most dangerous real estate in this part of the world. As the film’s tag line says, “One Platoon, One Valley, One Year,” and Hetherington and Junger stick to that and stick to the platoon, eating dirt and damage alongside these men.
In its 93 minutes, Restrepo shows you much of what you may already know about America’s soldiers. There’s machismo, bone-headededness, goofing off, sexism, camaraderie, bravery, cynicism and sometimes even poetry. But in this film no “by-jingo” bells are rung and it’s not poetry of war’s glory. These are tough guys until they’re scared, just doing the job when a walkie talkie conversation ends in a cold joke. Not the adrenaline-junkie mercenaries of over-the-top action flicks, but admitting how crushing boredom makes them crave a firefight.
Through it all Hetherington and Junger show the right kind of journalistic restraint. The work of war is grim enough, and debate still goes on over how much of its bloody carnage should be shown on the nightly news. Anything here above and beyond the men telling their own stories would be voyeuristic and disrespectful at best. This film is sobering, not shocking. Politics? It’s the day-to-day five mile radius politics of being on the ground in Afghanistan. The socioeconomic reasons presented for why these men are here? They decided to do it.
If you watch the deleted scenes on the DVD, the first paragraph should make its point. Anything other than what’s on the screen makes it different in tone and intent. There’s nothing wrong with honing and editing and the filmmakers should be commended for the end result. When a documentary is treated as the most truthful grail and is really just strident posturing and manipulation, those films and that attitude do the story told in Restrepo a disservice.
To avoid that disservice and in light of the opening quote from a soldier in the film, anyone who’s never been a soldier always wonders, “Who would want this job? But would I be able to do it?” – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 12/7/10