Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review: Restrepo

Restrepo: B+

Regardless of your stance concerning the war in Afghanistan, which has entered its 9th year, you should go see Restrepo to gain a more visceral understanding of life during wartime for the men and women (both Afghan natives and American military) struggling to survive. The companion piece to Sebastian Junger's recent book entitled War, the film alternates between the footage Junger captured when he was embedded with the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan and interviews with the soldiers who came home after their 15 month deployment. This is tough, tough stuff not so much in the sense that the documentary wallows in violence (the battle scenes are all first person point of view and mostly bloodless, but they put to shame the disorientation shown during the Battle of Normandy that opens Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan), but in the sense that these young men literally put their lives on the line every second of every day to battle a faceless foe. This is a film dripping with tension in scenes; when gunshots burst during this film, these characters might not get up from their wounds. And while this isn't anything groundbreaking, it contextually provides "us" (citizens here in the states) a point blank lens with which to see "them" (US military and Afghans) during the course of this awful war.

Make no mistake, the film refuses to produce an ideology towards the war, but not towards war itself. Politics are never directly mentioned and the president at the time, Bush, does not exist at all in the film except as a spectral presence by which all we witness directly and indirectly transpires. None of the soldiers articulate the feelings of being caught in a quagmire that will be determined by more than simply boots on the ground and superior firepower.

However, the images and conversations captured and reassembled in Restrepo (named after one of the first soldiers from the platoon to die) provide viewers an intimate perspective on how war creates a culture among a group of young men that has far more to do with brotherhood and life's fleetingness than any kind of masculine, macho stereotype. These men are not unemotive killing machines. These are men who bond as a unit, who fight as a unit, who joke as a unit, and who console as a unit. They fight for each other, not for a mission statement. If we cannot attempt to understand what they do not only for our country, but for themselves, we are acting as cowards and charlatans; it's easy for those of us who have never experienced war to criticize our soldiers since we view them from afar. Restrepo attempts to not let us make that mistake. If ever you feel like making an easy moral judgement on the men and women in the armed services, watch the scene in this film where a soldier breaks down in mid battle after a close colleague of his is shot dead.

Restrepo makes it clear: these men are charged with a Sisyphean task of not only trying to defeat the Taliban militarily, but they must simultaneously work to win the humanitarian battle of the Afghan "hearts and minds". This is much easier said than done when the enemy is everyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere. The Taliban are never seen during any of the firefights, yet they killed so many soldiers that the Korengal Valley was at one point considered the most violent part of Afghanistan. Villagers caught on film may or may not be Taliban, but you get the suspicion some of them cooperate with the Taliban.

Because of this fog of war, collateral damage is awful, unfortunate, and expected when information being provided to help the US forces is inaccurate. Afghan hearts and minds harden when their homes are bombed and their children killed, a chilling scene caught on film here that produces extreme sorrow for both sides. Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington aim their camera at the Afghan villagers and their hardened eyes speak of the deep distrust many of them have towards the US; many of them will never come to see the US side and you almost feel as if you are witnessing the next generation of insurgents being born before your eyes. This collateral damage is great propaganda for the Taliban to use to persuade villagers to join their fight against the infidels. It is no wonder when you watch the soldiers go about their day to day activities you really begin to understand the enormity of their task as well as the extreme hardships Afghan men and women have dealt with for generations.

Various other scenes in the film stand out.  Some Catch-22 style humor exacerbates the grimness of the story such as when an Afghan man tries to barter with the military for compensation due to his cow being killed.  The man wants money.  The soldiers are authorized only to provide the weight of the cow in beans and rice.  The man walks off, but you realize the cow is a source of income for the man.  Should he have been compensated monetarily, where the money might be funneled to the Taliban, or with the food offered?  Another scene that evokes a momentary release and escape from the deathly grind displays soldiers dancing joyously and jokingly to some terrible techno song within the confines of a tiny room.  Other times, the expression "lost in translation" seems appropriate not just linguistically, but culturally.  The weekly meetings Captain Dan Kearney holds with the village elders that exist to influence the most respected and relevant members of the Afghan communities become exasperated bits of blackly comic ineptitude where neither side seems to make progress.  These meetings, even more than the physical violence, project an air of dread and disillusionment.  If we cannot even seem to win over one group in one region, how can we successfully persuade most of the populace to side with us rather than the Taliban?  Indeed, after eight years, the Taliban has only gained in strength despite our military and humanitarian efforts, while Al-Qaeda (the US's initial target in Afghanistan) is not even mentioned.

But the film doesn't linger on these scenes since it isn't strictly about policy, but people. These scenes do illustrate just how difficult soldiers have it in a world totally foreign to them. In the end, Restrepo is a relevant film because it allows us into a world alien to most of us back stateside, who know more about Lindsay Lohan's quarter life crisis than we do about the men and women fighting half a world away in a war seemingly without end.  Restrepo might not ask much more than for viewers to look and listen to these men in uniform, but by doing so, the film demands those viewers to look beyond their often myopic, even fanatical viewpoints to really empathize with those soldiers struggling to survive one day at a time.

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