Mere minutes into Restrepo, a documentary that tracks one U.S. army platoon’s deployment in Afghanistan, a humvee explodes. It’s the humvee the cameraman is sitting in. The truck runs over an invisible IED, a burried pressure cooker packed with TNT, the camera shakes, camouflaged men bolt out of the vehicle on either side, shouting. And then silence as the cameraman runs away from the vehicle, his camera bouncing along to his panicked footsteps.
Welcome to the Korengal Valley, aka “The Valley of Death,” circa 2007. The film’s co-directors, journalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Heatherington, did not choose the location; their primary goal was to embed with the Battle Company’s Second Platoon for one year, on assignment for Vanity Fair and what later became Junger’s book WAR. The platoon’s deployment to the 6-mile-long swath near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, an area responsible for at least 40 American deaths and many more insurgent and Korengali civilian casualties was an added “bonus,” if you can call it that. “I’d never heard of the Korengal,” said Junger during a phone interview. “I was there simply because Battle Company was there. They just happened to be sent to Korengal.”
Despite their novice camera skills — “my experience shooting video prior to `making Restrepo` was zero,” said Junger — Heatherington and Junger use their decades of previous war reporting to drop directly into the intense action. “They were part of the platoon after a while,” said Major Daniel Kearney, Second Platoon’s leader. “They spent so much time with the guys … after we watched them in their first firefight and watched Sebastian’s footage afterward, we were able to say, ‘Hey, we can trust these guys. They’re going to stay out of our way, they know their place in this fight.’” As a result, the filmmakers were granted almost unrestricted access.
Everything is shot from the soldiers’ perspective, from the gorgeous panorama of spring-green wheat fields, stone villages carved from mountains, and the khaki riverbed as seen from a Chinnook, to explosions, patrols, gunbattles, and Operation Rock Avalanche, a ballsy maneuver that leads the troops to their emotional nadir.
Junger and Heatherington consciously avoid providing any context apart from a few brief title frames and some vague commentary from Kearney. The filmmakers stay with the platoon soldiers, never referring to outside sources or commenting on the larger War on Terrorism. “Our goal was to capture the reality of the soldiers,” said Junger, “and the soldiers really did not think about what they were doing in political terms.”
Essentially, the reason the platoon ended up so deep in the Korengal was to help secure the area so the Company could improve the single, crumbling road that connects with the Peche river, a supposed boon to the six impoverished tribes that inhabit the mountain valley. After weeks of intense firefighting, during which the platoon’s beloved medic is killed, Kearney decides to build an outpost in the small area responsible for much of the insurgents’ contact. In the course of one night, 80 Americans and 10 Afghanis build the Restrepo Outpost, named after the fallen medic. “It was like a middle finger sticking up,” says Kearney in the film. For their gesture, the platoon is rewarded with pre-dawn fire, and four to five subsequent attacks throughout the day, setting the pace for the rest of the film and the next several months of daily, multiple firefights from people the soldiers stop referring to as the Taliban or Al-Queda or insurgents, and start simply calling “the bad guys.”
In this bloody vaccuum, we’re free to observe Junger’s soldier reality. They live inside Restrepo’s rock-bag walls, without internet, phones, running water, and little heat or electricity, constantly fearing attack. “We’re like fish in a barrel,” says one staff sergeant. The rest of them have little chance of surviving. Yet they also thrill at the fight, whooping and laughing after most gun battles.
Despite Junger and Heatherington’s desire to focus on the soldiers, Restrepo needs context. In mid-April of this year, U.S. forces began pulling out en masse from the Korengal Valley. “It was as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding — a tragic, bloody misunderstanding,” began the Washington Post story on the withdrawal. The road-building mission the Second Platoon was meant to support stalled in late 2007, Junger suspects because not enough troops were deployed to the area. The Post story described U.S. troops deployed to the region as “bullet magnets,” meant to draw insurgents away from more maneagable areas in the rest of Afghanistan. Though Junger and Kearney seemed stoic about the withdrawal in their phone interviews, at the time Junger was troubled enough to write an op-ed in the New York Times. “The men took enormous pride in the outpost they built, and they can now go online and watch videotape of it being blown up by an American demolition team,” Junger wrote. “It is a painful experience for many of them.”
This knowledge also pains the viewer. To watch these soldiers bond, to see Kearney meet with village elders and promise them, “I’ll flood this whole place with health care and money”; to watch their despair at the death of their own or civilians, and know that in the end their effort to win hearts and minds was deemed a failure is truly devastating. Some small comfort can be found in the fact that while Kearney lost seven soldiers during this deployment, the information they passed on kept all but one U.S. soldier in Korengal from dying under fire over the next two years. With its apolitical, context-free approach, Restrepo does not add to the Afghanistan conversation so much as remind us why we need to continue to have it, and resolve it, in a way that no gossipy profile of a Bud Light Lime-swilling general or dry daily news report can.