Film Review: Restrepo

U.S. soldiers try to establish a base of operations in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. Rough-hewn documentary shows front-line fighting in vivid detail.

Shot in and around an Army outpost in the Korengal Valley, Restrepo offers an unprecedented look at soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan. The battle footage is raw and terrifying in ways rarely seen in documentaries before. By avoiding overt political statements, the filmmakers aim for a broad theatrical audience rather than one that has already chosen sides. Restrepo, which will eventually be broadcast on cable, isn't for or against the war in Afghanistan. But it does make clear that waging this war is difficult, if not futile.

Filmed over a 14-month period, Restrepo (the outpost is named for a medic killed in action) follows a roughly chronological format, tagging along with a platoon led by Capt. Dan Kearney from the moment it arrives by helicopter in the Korengal Valley to the end of its deployment. Interviews shot three months later in Italy allow some of the soldiers to comment on the footage, reminiscences that are emotional and troubling.

Ringed with steep mountains, the Korengal Valley is accessible only by helicopter, or by dirt roads that wind around exposed hillsides. As occupying forces, the American troops are essentially sitting ducks. They are surrounded by Afghans who are hostile if not outright armed rebels, and communicating with them is next to impossible.

In these conditions, where travel is perilous, and everyone a potential enemy, simple survival is a feat. Going on patrols, meeting with village elders, improving the compound's defenses, even stepping outside the barracks require remarkable courage.

Filmmakers Tim Hetherington, an award-winning photojournalist, and Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, clearly established a close rapport with the soldiers, capturing their hijinks and practical jokes as well as moments of panic and chaos. But their footage is more functional than expressive, and the film as a whole feels loose and unstructured. A more experienced documentarian might have been able to add a clearer viewpoint to some of the scenes, or find better ways to reveal the personalities of the soldiers.

No one can argue with the risks Hetherington and Junger took. The filmmakers are often in the midst of fighting, and it is in these passages that Restrepo may change your concept of war forever. The battles here don't have the purpose or clarity of a Hollywood feature. They are raw, senseless, violent. Soldiers are wounded and killed. They burst into tears, huddle in shock, and somehow still perform their duties. They are heroes in a time when the term has become almost meaningless.

While the troops cooperated with Hetherington and Junger, the filmmakers at times seem to be exploiting their material. Viewers learn to wait for the next ambush, the next explosion, or the moment a soldier starts to sob on camera. These "money shots" are portioned out a bit too carefully in Restrepo. Both directors have contributed articles about the Korengal Valley to Vanity Fair, and both have authored books about the war in Afghanistan as well.