REVIEW: Restrepo [2010]

“You look up, you say your prayers, and you move on”

It may be the label of the outpost built while under heavy fire in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, but Restrepo still stands for the man from which it was named. A young soldier enjoying life, Juan Restrepo is seen in the opening minutes as a self-proclaimed ‘beast that can’t be tamed’ and a man the others look to for a smile. Many tell their stories of him later, on the anniversary of his death—tales of hardened, long fingernails to play Flamenco and goofy aggression to diffuse the mood. Killed very early into the deployment at the fight’s most notorious spot for casualty and enemy engagement, the platoon carried on to honor the medic’s memory and give a collective middle finger to the Taliban by taking one of their favorite spots for the good guys. It’s a 15-man outpost that changed the dynamic of the valley and the fight itself, retaining the name even when those who knew Restrepo went home. The story is incredible, the emotions are real, and the footage is raw. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were in the middle of the action, documenting the war for us at home to experience and to keep the memory of those who fell alive.

Cut with interviews of the soldiers in Italy after their deployment ended, the film puts its viewers into the action while bullets fly. We watch as though we are in the bunker alongside the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airbourne Brigade Combat Team, caught in the firefights and then told by the men what happened. Deservedly a winner of the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, you can’t help but get caught up in the quest for survival. The Korengal Valley is insanity incarnate and, as Kyle Steiner says, appears to have the entire country of bad guys surrounding them for a constant barrage of gunfire. Bullets are the norm, so much so that the soldiers get nervous when it’s quiet, unknowing if the Taliban are planning an attack or right behind them about to ambush. But throughout it all, the men do their best to keep spirits up with jokes, wrestling matches, good-natured abuse, and even a pretty great dance party moment. They mourn their dead and continue the fight to honor them and make the enemy feel their pain.

It may appear they are invincible in their emotional strength, putting on the face for family calls and soldiering on, but as we see cracked voices in interviews, each casualty hit hard. Aron Hijar hopes to be able to one day process what he saw in a way to cope—refusing to forget, however, as the experience is one that makes him appreciate all he has—and Miguel Cortez can’t sleep since he’d rather go without than see the nightmarish imagery each time he closes his eyes. Captain Dan Kearney says it best when describing his platoon as one large family. He calls his parents and wife to say he loves them before going out to fight, knowing that if he gets killed, he’ll be okay. Instead, his fear lies with those under his command and dealing with their loss, never forgetting them. Kearney entered the area with a goal to change things and get the local elders on his side after his predecessor utilized over-zealous actions to alienate them. His men are disciplined and doing all they can to instill change, OP Restrepo being the largest step to insure security in a wildcard region. A born leader, you have to respect his speech after Operation Rock Avalanche, compassionate in his memory of losses, but firm in his need for the men to ready for more.

The footage of base building, firefights, and strategy are amazing in their candor, but it isn’t until Rock Avalanche that you begin to see the real danger and fear the war in Afghanistan wrought. We hear guys like Misha Pemble-Belkin talk about their lives before the military and memories of the fight, but nothing prepared them for this operation right into the heart of the enemy. They had injuries—Kevin Rice’s account of a Taliban pointing an RPG at him and firing is insane—and deaths—Sergeant Larry I. Rougle and the devastation on behalf of the men wondering if he, their best fighter, was mortal, what did it mean for them? When a guy like Steiner pauses saying he saw professional men turn weak in the knees during that fight, right after seeing footage of his adrenaline high from being fired upon and wondering how he’ll assimilate back into civilian life, you know things were intense. Hetherington and Junger do their best to take care and treat everything with decency, not lingering on dead bodies or showing the carnage, but also not shying from showing emotional breakdowns, fear, and the continuing fight necessary despite tragedy.

Restrepo is a heroic look at our forces and the hell they go through to insure our freedoms back home. Culled from a year’s worth of footage, the filmmakers show the right mix of unforgettable imagery in action with lighter moments like the ‘cow incident’—which gets brought up again once a local comes calling for compensation and also during the comedic end credits of loose moments and the animal’s preparation for dinner—and others to make sure and portray the humanity of each soldier. We’ll hear them get excited about kills, wish to have been able to see the enemy as he died, and suppress any remorse for collateral damage of children caught in the middle, but those instances are tempered by thoughts of home, apologies for errors, and memories of friends who won’t be coming back. The film is a fascinating trip into war that you just don’t see on the news with soundbytes and reporters ‘in the fight’. This story is told by real footage and real soldiers as it happens and as remembrances of success and failure. None of them believed the horror stories of Korengal when they arrived and no one was sad to leave it behind once they saw firsthand how true those stories were.

Restrepo 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington
[2] Captain Dan Kearney of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne meets with local Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films
[3] ‘Restrepo’ film directors Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington (right) at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. Junger and Hetherington jointly directed, filmed and produced the movie ‘Restrepo’ from June 2007 to January 2010. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. (Photograph © Tim Hetherington)

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