Trailing a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers in Afghanistan, Restrepo is a nerve-jangling work of “you are there” combat correspondence. It's also being pitched as the first apolitical war documentary of the post–9/11 era. Named for the platoon's fallen medic, and for the outpost that the soldiers erect in his memory, Restrepo adopts the grunt's point of view through battle and boredom alike, eliciting sympathy for young American soldiers fighting — and sometimes dying — half a world away from home.
If that tack sounds, well, political, the filmmakers — Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, veteran war correspondents who repeatedly risked their own lives for the movie — would much prefer to call it something else.
“Left-wing people — and I include myself among those people — tend to have this idea that war is the expression of some kind of modern ill, of civilization gone wrong,” says Junger by phone from Houston, where he's promoting his book WAR, the film's companion piece. “But the politically incorrect truth is that war is extremely ingrained in us — in our evolution as humans — and we're hard-wired for it. I think our movie communicates that in some ways.”
It's no wonder that Restrepo, which opens next week, is being distributed by National Geographic. The film plays like a documentary study of the human animal in his natural state — war being how Homo sapiens displays the survival-of-the-fittest principle that's central to other species as well.
“The most important thing for us was to make an honest film,” Hetherington says from his Brooklyn apartment. “After many years of war reporting, we've both gotten to the point of wanting to see people in war not as symbols or illustrations, but as people. Often, war reporters gloss over things. Sebastian talks about that in his book, about how reporters try to deny the excitement of war, when the fact is that war is exciting. We thought, 'Let's just show what's going on out there and not editorialize.'”
Restrepo eschews voiceover narration and keeps intertitles to a minimum, but it's not exactly cinema vérité. When the soldiers fly by helicopter into the Korengal Valley — known among grunts as the “Valley of Death” — there's Afghan music on the soundtrack. (Welcome to hell, boys.) When the survivors of the platoon finally leave the Korengal, some 15 months later, to recuperate in Italy, they're interviewed by the filmmakers, whose point-blank shooting catches their every twitch and hollow stare.
Restrepo alternates between the traumatic and the post-traumatic, so we're reassured throughout that at least some of the soldiers will survive. Nevertheless, the film imparts a stressful experience, in part for our having gotten to know — and quite possibly like — the men. Gentle, baby-faced Pemble grew up as the son of a “fuckin' hippie” who once took his squirt gun away. Cortez reports with a curious smile that sleeping pills don't help his insomnia or his nightmares. After a firefight with the Taliban, a bulky shooter named Steiner says, “That was fun. You can't get a better high. It's like crack.”
Junger, whose dozen years of death-defying journalism in Afghanistan have made him no stranger to adrenaline, says that an even stronger narcotic for Steiner and his platoon buddies is the buzz of social inclusion. “For a 19-year-old to feel necessary as part of a small group of men, to have a completely clear identity and a reciprocal duty to those around him, that's intoxicating: 'I'm one of the two 40-gunners on weapons squad, and my job is to shoot.' When a young guy builds his identity around that, and then comes home, where he's just another 19-year-old, why would some part of him not want to go back into combat? That's where he was functioning at his highest level, where he had the clearest understanding of who he was.”
Do the filmmakers feel similarly actualized when they're on the battlefield?
“You can put me in a really difficult situation, and I will make good images for you,” says Hetherington, a photojournalist who “got into the business of conflict” in 1999 when he was sent to cover the civil war in Liberia, and has mostly remained in the theater of operations ever since. “It's a weird skill set that I've mastered,” he says. “I make images under pressure.”
“My first war was Bosnia,” Junger recalls. “I was a failing freelance writer and waiter. I was 31, and felt like I wasn't going anywhere. I wanted to prove myself in some ways. War is often seen as a rite of passage by young men. There was that appeal. When I got to Bosnia, the work was completely intoxicating. It's very intense to be covering combat, and I definitely feed off that intensity.
“In Bosnia, I was beside myself,” he continues. “I couldn't believe that I was in this role of communicating to the rest of the world something of great urgency that was going on around me. It's important work, and I'm stunned and delighted that I'm good at it. It's nourishing to me.”
Like the band of brothers they filmed, Junger and Hetherington were of mixed feelings when their own tour of duty finally came to an end: “After being elbow-deep in editing for most of a year, it was exhilarating to finish the movie,” Junger says. “But at the same time, there was an incredible sense of loss.”
For a movie that is both a study and a product of blood, sweat, and tears, an oft-cited mid-'60s quote from film and combat vet Samuel Fuller seems to apply: “Film is a battlefield,” Fuller said in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou. “There's love, hate, action, violence, death. In a word: emotions.”