“Restrepo” brings life at war home

By Gabe Scarbrough

“Restrepo” is not a feel good movie. It will not hold your hand. It will not censor itself for you. It does not offer any solid answers and it does not give you a feeling of resolution. It does not attempt to explain what is happening. There is no clear plot line. There is no objective voice telling you what to think. This is as raw as it gets. This is war. Draw your own conclusions.

“Restrepo” is a documentary created by American writer and journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington. The film was made during the year they spent with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the Korangal Valley. The soldiers are in one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan and the filmmakers make no attempt to hide it. You will see shots fired. You’ll witness blood dry on a man’s fatigues as he walks away from his friend’s lifeless body. You will experience the commotion of war and see its results.

You see all of this in a very intimate way. The film is a mix of handheld footage shot with the soldiers under any conditions they were under mixed with interviews against a black background and a little bit of self-shot footage by the soldiers. The handheld footage is raw. There is no attempt to hide when audio cuts out. The camera shakes to the point where sometimes you have no idea what you’re looking at. The film crew made no attempt to add drama through shaping the experience with external lighting. The drama was already there. What you see is what you get.

The interview sections are different but just as intimate. While the professional lighting adds mood, the flat black background does not divert your eye from the subject. The camera lingers on every lip quiver and eye twitch as the soldiers describe fear, loss and triumph. While the handheld footage speaks for itself, the interview footage has the soldiers do the talking. There is no additive fluff spliced in. Viewers will find neither news footage nor official statements from military higher-ups added for “context.” This is the soldiers’ words and that’s it.

There are so many striking moments in this film. As a soldier reveals in an interview that he was never allowed to play with toy guns, we see footage of him smiling as he shoots a machine gun in battle. Two soldiers talk on radios and when one asks what the other does on his family’s ranch the conversation turns to hunting. He states that it’s the same thing in the Korangal.

“We’re not hunting animals. We’re hunting people,” he says. Soldiers rave to each other about the high of combat, comparing it to crack, and the next moment they lament how they don’t know how they will adjust to civilian life after the war.

But the film does not comment on any of this, and for every dark moment there are also many glimpses into the light of the human spirit. We see the troops wrestle, dance and play shooting games on the Play Station Portable. They tease each other one moment and reflect on their dead friends with the highest reverence possible in the next. These men are never portrayed as war machines or as any ideal of the American soldier. They are just men in a difficult situation.

If there is any one message that is reiterated more than any other in the film it is the importance of every single soldier. Whenever the anniversary of a death arrives, flares are shot off at the kill site – even the title of the movie is a dedication. “Restrepo” is not just the name of the base that the soldiers built but also the last name of the friend and medic they lost earlier in the campaign, Juan S. Restrepo.

You will sympathize with the soldiers, no matter what your position on the war is. When bombs go off you may literally jump and when the film goes to black at the end you may hear your own heart pumping in your chest.

Gabe Scarbrough can be reached at [email protected]