This haunting documentary, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, chronicles very young soldiers (some younger than twenty years old) during their fourteen-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley. A visceral view of modern battle, you cannot watch this riveting, real-life “Hurt Locker” without having your heart pulsate, tears catch, and compassion lodge in your throat for these boys and for the Afghan villagers they do not understand.
Sebastian Junger (author of A Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington (cinematographer) focus on a remote outpost named in memory of a platoon medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action shortly after arrival in the valley. Considered one of the most dangerous assignments in the US military, the Korengal valley is a hellhole. At the end, Outpost Restrepo is shut down, after many soldiers have been killed in Korengal.
This movie is about the eloquence and courage embedded in the human face: the glowing eyes of red-bearded Afghan elders who are trying to understand—through the words of interpreters—why the US soldiers are there. Their light-colored eyes glisten so much, they seem to glow in the dark. It is an indelible and unforgettable capture of eyes like no others the American viewer has ever seen.
And the tender-skinned faces of soldiers so vulnerable and so bewildered by combat, boredom, and fear, this viewer felt the exposure was almost too much to watch. These young men—teenagers really– heartbreakingly reveal themselves in their down time—wrestling each other, displaying muscular, tattooed bodies, dancing and listening to music with the easy, comfortable physical contact of a fraternity while peril lurks down the hill. What are these guys doing there?
The cameramen (embedded journalists Junger and Hetherington), relentlessly film close-ups of soldiers and the Afghan community –in dangerous cave dwellings so narrow I wondered how the cinematography took place so smoothly and professionally. Sometimes the camera lens is no more than six inches from the jaw line of a soldier, revealing each gulp and emotion trapped in his throat.
The story of Restrepo is told completely without commentary: through photography and the soldiers’ own voices. Interspersed throughout the combat footage is a series of interviews after the tour of duty ends. Each young veteran gives his own take on what has happened–how he has to move on. One talks about how he can’t sleep, even after sleeping pills, and isn’t sure if it’s better not to sleep than to sleep with the nightmares he inevitably experiences. Another soldier, “Pemble”, perhaps the youngest, with the spare, lyrical force of a tragic hero, comments that he cannot forget what has happened to him, however much he would like to, because he doesn’t want to forget what the other men have meant to him. In defining each soldier’s life after battle, through the subtlest changes in each youth’s liquid eyes, twinges, and catches in their voices, “Restrepo” witnesses war in the 21st century through faces not words, allowing each of us to see what we want to see of how war wounds us all.