Dir. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
(2010, R, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

War is hell. We know that already and don’t need another movie to tell us again. It’s not clear besides that what Restrepo wants to tell us about the lives of soldiers serving in a contested region of Afghanistan. Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington assemble footage without a clear narrative or thematic intent. What about the war in Afghanistan do they want us to recognize? What about its soldiers? What about the military or its campaign for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world? So much has been said already. But though I can’t find much new insight in it, by the end I found it hard to shake the film’s images or its soldiers under constant siege. It’s a slice of life on the front lines. There are thousands of stories like it. It has power.

The film opens with the knowledge that PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo was killed in action. His comrades in the 173rd Airborne continue without him during their defense of an outpost in the Korengal Valley, a region in which Taliban insurgents attack American troops relentlessly. They build a new outpost, all the while exchanging fire with enemy combatants, and name it for their fallen friend. The footage was shot in 2007, at which time Junger and Hetherington were on assignment for Vanity Fair. In his January 2008 article, Junger wrote of the importance of the region, “The Korengal is so desperately fought over because it is the first leg of a former mujahideen smuggling route that was used to bring in men and weapons from Pakistan during the 1980s.”

Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

The first half of the film plays out as a disconnected series of events. Skirmishes and firefights, meetings with the region’s elders, and operations whose objectives were not always clear to me, intercut with talking-head interviews with the soldiers. A few moments stand out, like a scene where a soldier setting up a gun turret is constantly interrupted by questions over walkie-talkie about his family’s ranch, which blends the urgent and the mundane in a way that is darkly funny. But the moments seldom stand together; they’re instances instead of a story.

A major turning point comes during Operation Rock Avalanche, undertaken to root out insurgents from the population. There comes a point when the film cuts away from combat footage to get the soldiers’ first-hand accounts of the death of Sgt. Larry Rougle. Whether Junger and Hetherington had the related footage I don’t know. If they had it and chose not to use it, they made a wise decision. In the great documentary Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog was given access to audio recordings of a man’s death. He did not let the audience hear them, and he advised the owner of the recordings to destroy them at once. Some things are more important than the documenting of events.

What is shown is the immediate aftermath, including the stunned and heartbroken reactions of the men in his division, presented with such raw emotionality that it’s as hard to watch as the violence. Harder maybe. The camera pans up a soldier’s uniform, stained from head to toe with blood; the soldier doesn’t acknowledge it and carries out his duties undeterred, but the camera takes time to show it, to observe what the soldiers don’t have the luxury to observe while under attack: a moment to reflect on humanity.

The directors reflect again near the end of the film. As the soldiers prepare for the end of their deployment and extraction to Italy the film cuts to their interview footage again, but they’re sitting silently, pensively, like still portraits. I was struck by their individuality. It’s a cliche to say that every life counts, but at a time when we don’t hear as much about our nation’s armed conflicts as we should, every reminder counts.