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Entries in Restrepo [2010] (1)

Tuesday
Mar012011

Restrepo (2010) Home Video Review

Bland of Brothers

I need to clear something up right away, so there’ll be no confusion about where I’m coming from.  I’m not a fan of the military, philosophically, but I respect the brave men and women who serve and fight and honor their commitment to their job and fellow soldiers (ideally, to paraphrase Michael Moore, the politicians running the show would have the decency and perspective to deploy troops only when absolutely necessary; but you can’t have everything).  When discussing my dislike of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary, Restrepo, know that I have no criticism of their subjects—simply the way in which the directors put their film together.

Going into Restrepo, I knew only that it was about a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan famous for being both a strategic non-starter and a hot-bed of American casualties.  When the film opens, we meet Juan “Doc” Restrepo, and right away I think we’re going to follow him on his deployment to the outpost; get his thoughts on war and get to know his brothers-in-arms.  Five minutes later, through the testimony of other soldiers, I find out Restrepo was killed in 2007.

So, mentally, I switch gears.  Maybe this is the story of what led to his death; perhaps Junger and Hetherington are “Tarantino-ing” their movie (to borrow a term from Dane Cook).  But, no, I only see a lot more black-backdrop testimony cut into shaky-cam footage of young men going on patrol in the deadly Korengal Valley (since the start of the War on Terror, 70% of the ordnance dropped on Afghanistan has been used there).  The soldiers’ original base of operation is OP Korengal, but soon a new captain named Dan Kearney rallies his men to push further into the valley than anyone has ever managed, and helps establish OP Restrepo.  The ultimate goal is to establish an open road through the valley, winning the hearts and minds of the locals with jobs, prosperity, and an aversion to aiding the Taliban.

So, a little less than a half-hour in, I finally know what the movie’s about.  In the last several years, many films have been made about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; they’ve ranged from documentaries explaining we got involved to dramas about being on the ground to political soapboxes chronicling soldiers’ return to the states and what their condition says about U.S. foreign policy (directly or indirectly).  The problem with Restrepo is that the directors seem to believe that just because their footage is authentic that it’s automatically compelling enough to string together a movie.

They’re wrong.  Even the most amazing true stories fall apart if they’re told poorly or stretched too thin (see 127 Hours), and after an hour-and-a-half of watching shells clink-clink-clink into the dirt; lots and lots and lots of walking around; and thousand-yard-stare interview footage, I honestly don’t know what the point of Restrepo is—which brings me back to narrative structure.

For one thing, it didn’t occur to me until the movie was almost over why the foot-patrol footage was so unsatisfying; I realized that for over an hour, I’d watched men searching the woods of Afghanistan for enemies that they never saw.  There are several scenes where someone hears gun-fire from way in the distance; another person radios for air cover while others rattle off rounds in several directions; soon after, a drone or helicopter swoops in to bomb the insurgents’ location.  We don’t see anyone die or get wounded until one scene towards the end, and the filmmakers manage to completely screw that up, too.

In a three-day patrol in an area called “Rock Avalanche”, the soldiers wander into very dangerous territory that’s crawling with enemies and enemy sympathizers.  The first two days are uneventful, but on the third day, they come under heavy attack and lose several men.  It’s coincidence that the attack happens on day three (thus following the cinematic Rule of Three—by which the audience will inevitably be faked out twice before a big reveal/event), and having endured more walking and talking, I was ready to see how the soldiers performed in battle.

Sadly, I only half got to see it, because Junger and Hetherington decide that for the one scene in which something intimate happens with this platoon, they’re going to go the art-house route and cut to interviews of the soldiers recounting what happened.  I assumed there was some legal reason for not showing people dying on film; either that, or the filmmakers were just determined to leave every bit of action out of their war movie.  Whatever the case, we cut back to the woods after a number of people have fallen; the soldiers cover a body and drag it back to base; several of them cry in disbelief.  We then get some heartfelt remembrances of a guy that I don’t recall having seen in the movie before.  I was totally lost here, and like the men of Battle Company, I couldn’t wait for the whole miserable affair to be over.

Look, I’m not a blood-thirsty war-monger, and I take no pleasure in seeing real people get killed.  But from a pure storytelling perspective, taking this as a movie, it’s unforgivable that the directors would omit footage that they had to have had for whatever reasons they did.  I’m fine with the interview pieces coming into play after the battle, but not in place of it.  Imagine an episode of Cops where the camera cuts off after the frenetic ride to a multiple-murder hostage situation, followed by an officer recounting the ensuing massacre from behind his desk a week later.

But let’s get back to Restrepo; the man, not the outpost.  Junger and Hetherington never give us a reason to care about, or even like, their titular character—outside of the default “Because He Serves Our Country” excuse.  The couple of minutes we see of him, he’s an obnoxious, ghetto-talking hot-shot who appears to be auditioning for The Jersey Shore.  Throughout the movie, the friends he left behind talk about how funny he was, and how he taught a guy to play the guitar, but there’s no backstory (or fore-story, for that matter); no reason to think he was anything but the dumb grunt we saw in the beginning.

Heartless?  Sure.  Maybe “Doc” was a solid guy, a loving family man, and every other wonderful thing his comrades thought he was.  But I didn’t get any of that from the movie made in his honor.

This lack of context and character development poisoned the rest of the film, too.  The only person whose name I remember is Kearney, who gives a great speech about resilience following the slaughter of another unit in the area; but aside from recognizing some of the faces that popped up more frequently than others, I had no idea who I was watching.  What did war mean to them?  Did they look forward to going home, really, or were some of them the adrenaline addicts we hear so much about in media and movies?

Instead of all the scenes in which the soldiers sit around, zoned on their PSPs or dancing with each other while play-acting “gay”, I would’ve rather the filmmakers thrown a bone to the six people in the audience who insisted that the movie earn the emotions it merely assumed had been established.  I imagine this movie is very evocative for veterans who shared similar experiences; but like watching someone else’s vacation videos, the excitement and nostalgia don’t apply to those who weren’t there.

Hell, the film’s only an hour-and-a-half long.  And despite my frustration and boredom, I would have loved to have seen a three-hour version—recut to make sense, of course, and beefed-up with some outside perspectives and backstory; I'd settle for a movie about the filmmakers being embedded in a fucking war zone. But that’s not the movie Junger and Hetherington wanted to make, and it’s fitting that Restrepo’s epilogue states that the U.S. government closed it down in April of 2010.  Having ultimately accomplished nothing, the Powers That Be cut their losses and moved on.  As will I.