Today: February 21, 2024


War, what is it good for? Providing ample source material for the
movies, for one, yet combat is often inaccurately portrayed by cinema,
painted on the big screen as a roaring, cacophonous action-laden land of
heroes and heroics, as much shown for our titillation as anything else.
Not always, but often. Restrepo though, directorial debut from
filmmakers Hetherington and Junger, is something else, and presents
combat is it really is, from its heart-pounding moments of terror to the
boredom and monotony that marks military life.

Embedded with a US platoon in the valley of Korengal in Afghanistan, co-directors Hetherington and Junger’s Restrepo is a warts ‘n all documentary
depicting life on the front line. The fiercely contested outpost
Korengal is subject to over 70% of all US ordnance (bombs and general
unpleasantness to civvies like you and me) dropped in the country, and
remains a hotbed of fighting where US forces come up against Al Qaeda
insurgents, while maintaining relations with locals, with whom they hold
weekly ‘shuras’ or consultations. The filmmakers spend a year with the
platoon dug in to the mountain, their film comprised of on location
footage and interviews conducted with key individuals back at base in
Italy once their tour has been completed.

Introducing the audience to ‘the Kop’, the nickname given to the
valley that becomes their pseudo-home, Hetherington and Juger guide us
through the life of a soldier, exploring what it is that drives the
young men (and shockingly young in some cases) to take on the job that
they have – one young recruit confessing (in jest?) to joining the
army to fulfil his desires to fire a weapon, an activity birthed by his
hippy parents’ banning of toy guns when he was a child
. The duo
follow the platoon through their experiences as they face fighting, deal
with the loss of friends killed in action, and how they keep themselves
sane when faced with the mind numbing tedium and repetition that is
part and parcel of the life they have chosen.

The film has its moments of devastation, the death of a soldier
during Operation Rock Avalanche, a brazen assault on the enemy, is
shown first hand and the effect this has on the platoon is painful to
watch. Indeed, the title of the film refers to the name of a
mountain-side battlement the platoon dig out of the rock and build,
while under heavy fire, which is named after Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, a
popular soldier killed in fighting. Yet there are also moments of levity
too, one scene in particular showing three soldiers dancing to a song
in a makeshift cabin in their mountain outpost as if they were in a
nightclub back home, far away from the violence that surrounds them.

The film shows what life is like on the ground, away from the
politics and spin and the propaganda, and Hetherington and Junger refuse
to engage with the politics of the situation or offer opinion on the US
presence in Afghanistan. Serving up a real life Hurt Locker,
complete with the soldiers’ bafflement at how, post-combat, they will
fit back in to civilian life, their intent is to observe and document,
and they do this superbly. Yet their refusal to place the war in context
distils the film of some of its potency. While this is not the
filmmakers’ focus, there is some real insight to be gleaned through a
few telling moments: two soldiers are chatting over the radio, one
muttering about ‘hearts and minds’ in reference to the US government’s
statement of what must be won over in order to emerge victorious, the
other offering by way of reply, “Yeah, we’ll take their hearts and we’ll take their minds.”

Refusing to pass judgement though, and letting the actions and events
speak for themselves produces a visceral and beguiling portrayal of
life as a soldier, the uncertainty, the unpredictability, the fear, and
the emotions that they are subject to and endure left open to see. As
one soldier remarks once back home and finished with Korengal: “I still
haven’t figured out how to deal with it inside.” Restrepo will leave
you feeling something very similar.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website:

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