Thursday, June 24, 2010

RESTREPO: the Hetherington/Junger American men-at-war documentary opens

In the annals of men-at-war documentaries (U.S.-in-the-middle-east variety), Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's RESTREPO occupies an interesting place. More artful, though less off-the-cuff, than Gunner Palace or Severe Clear (even with the latter's odd mix of conflicting narrator and director viewpoints), it gives us, in just about 90 minutes, a fairly inclusive picture of men at modern warfare. Here is the getting ready, the going abroad, the combat (with its loss of life), working with the indigenous people (who might very well be the enemy), horsing around and challenging each other at wrestling, and a lot of talking -- about both what is happening at the urgent moment and in retrospect, with time having healed (or further opened) old wounds.  

This makes for a more complete picture than we generally get, and it goes a long way towards our understanding of the situation from the viewpoint of its U.S. participants (we never see the other side's combatants: it's all just bullets whizzing by).  Our boys shown here, unlike those in some other documentaries, never question why they are where they are or what they are doing.  (Or if they do, we don't see or hear this.)  But then, that's what good soldiers don't do: question. They carry out orders.  This situation allows Restrepo to be about as non-political as possible under the circumstances.  Viewers, in any case, will probably already have their own ideas, fairly well-fixed by now, about the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Hetherington (above, right) and Junger (above, left) are smart to stick us into the thick of things quite soon.  However, unlike what I had already read about this film -- and so was consequently expecting almost non-stop "action" and fierce, you-are-there fighting -- the movie is leavened with a good deal of quiet talk and remembrance.

Early on, the Captain explains that, "Getting these people (the Afghans) to push out the Taliban, the insurgency, is to get them to basically push out their own family members, so this is going to be the hard part." Uh, yes.  And from what we see over the next hour and a half, he's so right. Later he explains that past mistakes made by former commanders will be expunged: "We're wiping the slate clean!"  Gosh, I wonder how you do that?  Especially when there's no time for the truth-and-reconciliation thing -- not that T&R always works that well, anyway (see Disgrace).

The short wrap-up information that closes the film indicates, without spelling this out in bold type, that nothing this company of men has done has achieved a damn thing, except the loss of life. That's about as political (or not) as the movie gets.  (I did not stay for the Q&A that took place with Mr. Junger after the FSLC's Human Rights Watch Festival screening, but I am told that he seemed to indicate that, while Iraq was certainly a folly, our presence in Afghanistan is good, if only for the fact that the death toll among Afghans is down since we've been there -- a conclusion that has drawn mixed reviews.)

Restrepo, by the way, is the name of the outpost created by the company soldiers at the top of hill where they can fire down or up at the hills above and below them (and can be fired upon from above and below, as well). The outpost is named for a medic whom we see briefly at the film's beginning, as he leaves for his deployment and jokes with his companions.  He is the first person in the company to be killed.

Another soldier, whom one of his comrades calls "the best of all of us," is also killed, as we watch during one of the attacks, and shocking as this is to see, even more so, in its way, are his comrades' responses to the death.  These are not so much the fear or anger we might expect but rather a kind of how-can-this-be-happening surprise, accompanied by such sorrow and pain in their cries that this sweeps away nearly everything else I have seen regarding death-in-combat.

Along the way, you may feel, as did I how difficult it must be for these soldiers to understand what is happening, let alone why.  The need for constant translation of language when speaking with the populace, not to mention an understanding of Afghan culture and religion -- so much is missing for our boys that a tiny detail like petting a local dog takes on incredible meaning as a primal give-and-take that actually works on some level.

After a mini firefight, "Next time you see that dude, take his head off!" notes one solider to another. Trouble is, they didn't "see that dude" in the first place.  They never seem to see their enemy. Nor do we.  During the event that most of the guys feel was their worst experience -- something called Operation Rock Avalanche -- the men go into the home of a dying family where they are simply unable to offer help of any sort.  This pains them -- and us.  And from where do these very odd looking dyed-red beards on the older men of the village come and what do they signify?  We don't learn this either, but we wonder briefly if we've wandered into some re-creation of the Kurosawa movie.

As for the homo-erotic, men-at-war element, there's a scene here that should call to mind a certain Camp Sullivan. Finally, we're just glad, as are the men, to depart Restrepo -- the movie and the outpost. We're left, as are the soldiers, with odd, disturbing memories.  We can shake them off; for the soldiers, you've got to wonder about PTS syndrome.

Restrepo, from National Geographic Entertainment, opens Friday, June 25, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center.  You can find upcoming playdates across much of our very large country here.

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