Sunday, July 18, 2010
Valley of Darkness: Restrepo
It is late October 2007 in the Korengal Valley, then not just one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan but in all of the world. On this day the U.S. Army is taking the fight to the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche. Already gunfire has been exchanged in the rugged terrain. At the moment, members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Battle Company scamper up a ridge in pursuit of the enemy, a camera trailing behind them. All are running, until all of a sudden they aren’t – stopping when they come upon a U.S. soldier standing with his back to the battlefield’s vague frontline, his weapon lowered. It’s an unexpected sight that doesn’t make sense, until we see the body at the soldier’s feet. Now another soldier crests the ridge, bewildered that his fellow troops have halted their advance. Instantly he knows something is wrong. Then he spots the body, covered in a poncho except for one exposed boot. One of his brothers in arms is dead. Upon this realization, the soldier reacts. Severely. Heartbreakingly. Even irrationally. This is a scene no outsider should ever see. It’s too personal. The emotional carnage is too graphic. This is a moment that should be witnessed only by those unfortunate enough to live through it, and then it should be lost to time. Alas, this is war.
Without scenes like that one, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo would too easily fulfill Truffaut’s maxim that no war movie can be an anti-war movie. Instead, Restrepo is a devastating yet ambiguous documentary that exists in the overlap between anti-war and pro-soldier. Chronicling a year spent serving one of the army’s most dangerous and dreaded tours, Restrepo examines the meaning of life within war. It’s not a political or historical film so much as a human one, hence its title. The film is named after Battle Company’s remote outpost on a hilltop in Afghanistan, which was named in honor of the soldier whose death inspired the outpost’s construction. After 20-year-old medic Pfc. Juan S. “Doc” Restrepo was killed, Battle Company felt inspired – strategically and emotionally – to take the high ground. Ascending one of Korengal’s many hills at night with shovels and guns, Battle Company alternated between shoveling and shooting until a small but significant U.S. position was secured. From there, O.P. Restrepo grew, becoming a place of strength and symbolism. Proudly observes one solider: O.P. Restrepo stuck out like a raised middle finger aimed at the Taliban, which was kind of the point.
O.P. Restrepo, the U.S. military’s deepest penetration into Taliban territory in Afghanistan, is a sign of what can be “won” at the expense of American lives; its construction helped to protect the platoon’s other soldiers while simultaneously furthering America’s military aims. But what was lost? “Doc” Restrepo, obviously, along with about 50 other soldiers who died in the area over the course of the U.S. Army’s fight to secure a position it would later willingly evacuate. Beyond that, though, there’s also the mental and emotional health of the survivors to consider. Most of Restrepo’s 90-minute running time is spent with boots on the ground, but its talking-head interviews feature Battle Company soldiers reflecting on their Korengal tours after the fact, their bodies mostly intact but their psyches perhaps irreversibly damaged. In the interviewees’ varied expressions, captured in brightly lit close-ups against pitch-black backgrounds, we sense the depth and elusiveness of their trauma: one soldier goes into silence; another stares into the distance as if in a trance; a third soldier smiles, almost chuckles, as he thinks back on the Korengal Valley, as if he’s describing his favorite comedy, rather than trying to process the horrific theater of war. These soldiers are free from the physical danger, yet they remain pinned down by the memories of all they endured, memories they haven’t figured out how to process.
If this unfiltered intimacy makes Restrepo occasionally overwhelming, it’s also what makes the film so compelling. No documentary can be entirely without agenda (if nothing else, there’s the “agenda” of being interesting), but Restrepo proves to be equally fascinated by all elements of the Korengal tour. The documentary gives us a feel of what it’s like to be under enemy fire and also what it’s like to celebrate an enemy kill. It shows us soldiers raving about the rush of battle and also soldiers describing the physical and mental strain of constant fighting. It shows soldiers earnestly trying to improve relationships with local village elders and also soldiers dismissively laughing off the battle for hearts and minds, as if sensing its futility. It shows soldiers hitting their intended targets and also soldiers coming upon accidental civilian casualties. In addition, Restrepo observes that even in the most dangerous of war zones military service is often defined by periods of boredom. For all its haunting battlefield imagery, the documentary might be at its best when chronicling the rituals of monotony: a soldier flipping through a tattered surfing magazine he’s probably looked at a dozen times; a soldier sketching (yet again) the breathtaking panorama of Korengal (“it’s the only thing I know how to draw”); a soldier turning on dance music to expend some playful energy; a soldier pausing from the task of repositioning his gun to engage in a disrupted yet rhythmic radio conversation in which he tells a fellow soldier about his family’s ranch back home.
These images capture the specifics of service in the Korengal Valley, but they also speak to the overall war. The U.S. pulled out of the Korengal Valley in April of this year, but the larger fight goes on. Restrepo never explores the campaign at large, never analyzes troop numbers, never dips into high-level politics, never points a finger, never asks overt questions. It doesn’t need to. To watch this film is to be struck by the enormity of the task – engaging with an enemy that’s embedded among a civilian population, fighting over rugged terrain, trying to win a few hearts and minds while protecting one’s own. Is “victory” in Afghanistan possible? How many lives would that cost? How many years would that take? Are we up for it? If there are easy answers to these questions, you won’t find them in Restrepo. But in addition to chronicling where the U.S. been in Afghanistan, this documentary is an indication of what might be ahead. After years in which the war in Afghanistan has felt a bit out of reach, Restrepo makes it feel close to home. So close it hurts.