It doesn't really matter your position on the war, and it is a war, in Afghanistan while watching Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington's exceptional documentary Restrepo. Restrepo is not a political film nor does it opt to take a stand, instead it is simply a remarkably intense and human observation of the men who fight in war and the those on both sides who are impacted by it.
The documentary follows a platoon of U.S. soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan's remote Korangal Valley, an area undoubtedly infiltrated by Taliban fighters and considered to be one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. Named after Juan Restrepo, a platoon medic killed in action, this 15-man outpost comes under fire several times a day and, at times, from virtually every angle possible.
Perfect Storm writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington were planted inside the Restrepo Outpost for 15 harrowing months and the film that results isn't so much one that will sway you one way or the other regarding the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as it is a frightening yet poignant reminder of the American soldiers whose presence is, at least for them, far more personal than political.
The fact that Restrepo is so captivating and intense is true even though the enemy, in this case the Taliban, is a constantly elusive threat that is seen only once during the film's 15 months of filming. It's not the face-to-face encounters that are so menacing here, it's the ever present life and death threats from an enemy that cannot be seen nor heard despite their impact being constantly felt.
The brilliance of Restrepo is in Junger and Hetherington's willingness to so fully immerse themselves in the soldier's experience without they themselves becoming a part of the experience. The film is virtually devoid of narration for, indeed, the experiences are powerful enough without any form of human response. Had a filmmaker like Michael Moore made such a film, the narration would have been seemingly endless and intrusive even if well intended. Instead, Restrepo is guided solely by the experiences of these men during the most deeply moving and mundane moments of daily life on the front line.
Sgt. Aron Hijar remarks "The fear is always there," and it is this fear, even in the most boring moments, that permeates virtually every cell of Restrepo, a film for which unflinching seems inadequate terminology. Seemingly simple tasks, such as negotiations over one tribal elder's loss of a cow, take on monumental meaning for these soldiers as they attempt to win the sympathy of the elders while holding at bay the always near by Taliban.
Watching Restrepo, it all begins to make sense...no, not the war itself, but the war's impact on the soldiers whose lives will be forever changed by this experience. Restrepo takes us along for the soldier's exhilaration during a firefight and, as well, the emotional depths of watching their fallen brothers after a tragic ambush. Even if you are a staunch anti-Afghanistan pacifist, Restrepo will undoubtedly serve as a powerful reminder that in the process of condemning war we must always be mindful of these men and women who are fighting.
The film largely centers around the almost unspoken Operation Rock Avalanche, regarded by virtually every soldier present in the film with a somberness indicating the operation as a low point of their presence at Outpost Restrepo.
While Restrepo isn't likely to sway you one way or the other regarding the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it will be a captivating and unforgettable cinematic experience that makes you, even demands you, to view the conflict through human rather than political eyes. With Restrepo, Junger and Hetherington have created one of 2010's best documentaries and an easy frontrunner for an Best Documentary Oscar Award this year.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic