Maybe I am a liberal peacenik of the highest order or maybe I am just a total dick. Either way, I really disliked this Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documentary. And I disliked it for some very specific reasons.
Everyone knows about Junger because of his macho nonfiction, the literary equivalent of a hammy fist pound on the conference table during a meeting with “the suits.” He excels at exciting the reader with his daring-doo tales of doomed men and the death that surrounds them. Hertherington is, probably lesser known, because his photographs of human suffering caused by the fringe effects of armed conflict, are brutal. But if Hertherington is mentioned, outside the context of this movie and its accompanying book, it will center on his 2009 multimedia exhibit Sleeping Soldiers.
RESTREPO is a perfect example of the banality of hallowed tropes – how war makes boys into men and men into killing machines and killing machines into reluctant heroes and reluctant heroes into tiny movie award statues. The movie’s name sake is a fallen combat medic, a comrade of the fire base platoon. The fact that he is killed in an ambush the filmmakers were not present for, so off screen, he provides the sympathetic engine driving the “emotional” center. But it’s a cynical ploy, I felt.
In the opening scenes, the audience meets “Doc” Restrepo. He makes a brief appearance in amateur footage shot by the guys as they travelled on a bus or train toward the war. Restrepo comes off as a hip hop shit talker, full of the wankster virile bluster. Other than provide the name of the Outpost and the film, Restrepo, the solider, is utterly left out of the movie. His absence is noticeable, while there are a couple of interviews where his friends mention him, the audience is never given anything to connect with. Had I read this Miami Hearld piece on who Juan Restrepo actually was and why his buddies liked him, the movie might have worked better. One wonders why such a profile was left out of the documentary.
Absence and distance are good metaphors for the documentary, though, because for the entire movie, the Afghani enemy is completely invisible and absent from the screen. The soldiers shoot at tree lines, look through high powered binoculars to describe annihilating tiny humans running across an opening hundreds of yards away. And the one single firefight patrol, Operation Rock Avalanche, is recounted by the guys in interviews. Even the body of their killed commander is only glimpsed at from a distance. The war, it seems, is happening elsewhere. One specialist even complains on his last day at the Outpost, that while he fears getting overrun, he really would like to be able to see the people he is killing.
Furthering this disconnection is a feeling, which the film creates, of the relative safety of war. While we are told the platoon is taking fire every single day, the tension of that environment is completely absent. We get a lot of gunfire, sure. But the pings of incoming fire are barely documented. In fact, I have never seen a war documentary or picture, which seemed so devoid of danger. When the platoon hears about the deaths of 9 US troops in another part of the valley, they are rocked to their core. Again, the murder of the war is remote and abstract.
This is a strange structural decision for the film to make. I found myself surprised when the platoon is shown planning Operation Rock Avalanche. As they suit up and head out, the guys reflect that they know they are walking into a hot zone and will see combat. It’s a moment of clarity as the soldiers are seen preparing for their job, to kill and be killed. But we do not really see them doing that job, in fact, contrasted with the scenes of the guys hanging out and dancing in the doorways of their makeshift Outpost, the war effort comes off as secondary, half-hearted, and in the background. It’s a weird effect of the movie.
One last point, there is a running thread about an incident with a local man’s cow. While it is not fully explained, the pieces fall into place like this, I guess – a cow wandered into the razor wire perimeter of the Outpost. The guys, unable to free it, kill it. They grill it up, which is a great day at the Outpost, and one that really let their cook shine. Later, the cow’s owner appeals to the valley’s elders, who have a monthly meeting with the Outpost commanders. Nothing comes of this, so the farmer, makes the pilgrimage, himself, to the Outpost, where he makes his own plea for cash. The United States Military will not reimburse the farmer the 500 dollars for a new cow, instead offering the cow’s weight in foodstuffs, rice and beans.
The absurdity is probably the point of this background narrative. The fact that the scenes are not consistently documented, nor is there much attention drawn to the event, speaks to the insensitivity of the combat troops. The failure of the “hearts and minds” mission. What is most important to the locals, the cow, becomes a joke to the Americans. Is there a message there that the filmmakers are subtly making about the hopelessness of the campaign, the failure of enthusiasm? Unfortunately, the movie is so disjointed and weak, that it would be impossible to say.