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.

11 comments:

Craig said...

But what does this have to do with Inception?

Kidding. Good review. Thanks for a bit of counterprogramming.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ha! Funny.

I still haven't seen Inception, and it's making Google Reader a pain in the ass. I keep going to my favorite haunts and it's the same thing: "Oops, can't read that yet ..." By the time I get around to joining these conversations, you all are going to be burned out. But that's OK.

Hokahey said...

I wish this had been playing in D.C. when I was there. I will definitely see it on the Cape if it makes it here.

MovieMan0283 said...

I hadn't heard of this film until now, but I see it's playing in Cambridge - hopefully I can catch it before I leave town. A number of your observations resonate, particularly this: "After years in which the war in Afghanistan has felt a bit out of reach, Restrepo makes it feel close to home."

This reminds me of how I felt about Iraq until a number of excellent docs came along a few years in (Iraq in Fragments and No End in Sight, polar opposites in terms of their approach come to mind). Though I don't think they made it "in reach" for me, they did give me something to grapple with.

I think Afghanistan is obscured by the economy and the tea-party antics right now but that next year it will return to the news with a vengeance. And the emphasis will be on "quagmire," with comparisons to Vietnam. However, I don't think the analogy is all that apt - unlike Vietnam, we are fighting people who have demonstrated a willingness to attack us on our own soil, or at least to give cover to those who do. Also unlike Vietnam, the war started with a bang, we went in willingly, with a clear purpose, and a united front like none since 9/11. This doesn't necessarily mean we should stay or that it was the right thing, but it frustrates me to see many on both left and right backing away now without offering clear alternatives. At the same time, as the recent McChrystal flap shows and far more importantly the horrific massacres of civilians that are being reported, the current course seems to be a complete mess. I don't know what the answer is, but the question won't be abstract for very long - my cousin is headed there next year, his little brother is about to enlist, and several other people I know also look to be heading over there in the next year or two. At any rate, I think 2011 will be "the year of Afghanistan", personally and nationally.

You bring up two purposes of war docs which I've noted in the past too: giving us the bigger picture, and giving us a sense of the lived-in experience. Among Iraq docs, I found No End in Sight did the former really well (Why We Fight tried and failed), while Iraq in Fragments and The War Tapes provided ground-level views from the Iraqis' and soldiers' perspectives, respectively. All these approaches are essential, and as the war inevitably drags on in the years to come, I hope we will see more of both.

MovieMan0283 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, MovieMan (Joel). I haven't seen Fragments or Tapes, but I agree with you on No End In Sight. I also agree that Afghanistan is bound to rise to the surface again.

The political analysis is interesting. I think you're right about the ways that it's different than Vietnam. And the other complicating factor is this: I think anyone except the most ardent Bush supporter would agree that our post-9/11 response was, let's say, bungled. We put our attention in the wrong place, not just in terms of our stated mission (getting Osama's ass) but also in terms of addressing the greatest danger (getting Osama's ass, along with fellow Taliban, of course). Given all the American lives lost toward a misguided effort, and given the fact that "winning" the complex war with the "small" number of troops currently dedicated to finding it seems impossible, it's tempting to feel like what we "should" do, what we owe it to our troops to do, is to get the fuck out of there, at least until we're ready to fully commit.

Watching this film, however, I was struck by what a loss it was that we pulled out of a location that we'd fought so hard to win in the first place. And I found it impossible to refute that, yeah, these people don't like us, and want to fight a war against us. And on the one hand maybe we're fools for getting suckered into fighting the war on their soil, on their terms, but on the other hand perhaps it's not entirely foolish to reason that so long as our troops are over there fighting that citizens here in the states might be a little more safe, if for no other reason than that the Taliban doesn't see the need to nudge us back over the ocean to fight them.

So, as much as a shudder to at the thought, do we need more war in Afghanistan and not less?

These are loose thoughts. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject. Nor do I think our national media is sufficiently informed to the point that any regular citizen can be an expert. Point is, this movie made me shudder for a larger conflict in the future that, one way or another, is starting to seem inevitable.

Definitely, see this.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks for the further thoughts, Jason. I'll let you know what I think after I've seen the film. A movie which gave us easy answers would, I think, be rather suspect...

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Well Jason, I saw this film late last night (9:50) at an art house multiplex in Montclair, N.J., while my wife and one of my sons watched WINTER'S BONE on another screen (a film I had previously seen and thought one of the year's best-as you did) I see you have typically left no crums for the peasants (LOL)with this perceptive and comprehensive analysis, and the stellar paragraph above is proof parcel.
And yeah, it's the ennui that's ironically the most fascinating aspect, as we do want to learn more about the people risking their lives, their own psychology and demons rather than yet another hand-held camera collection of battle sequences.
I thought the second-half of the film came together, as the opening sections were wearsome and loquacious. i guess I would rate it with a 4/5. The Joan Rivers documentary remains for me the best of the year in that department, but geez, talk about night and day.

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: A movie which gave us easy answers would, I think, be rather suspect... Amen!

Sam: Thanks for the kind words and your thoughts.

Hmm ... now I'm kind of kicking myself for letting the Joan Rivers doc slip by. I intended to see it until each weekend it was here in DC it never felt like the movie I wanted to see, when I had time. Maybe it's still around somewhere.

Daniel Getahun said...

Been really anxious to read your thoughts after finally finishing by own. Like you, I was struck dumb by the intense inside access provided by the camera here, and I say that after having championed The War Tapes (extra points to MovieMan for having seen it! and great comment overall) for the last few years as The Essential Documentary about the War in Iraq. It's not a coincidence that both films put the filmmakers, and in both cases the cameras as well, in the soldiers' care.

As nauseating it was to witness the aftermath of the American death, I was most viscerally affected by the aftermath of the air strike at what was thought to be a safe house. I don't think that says anything about where my allegiance lies, but the sight of children in the middle of this hell really shook me.

I also had a similar thought as you allude to at the end, that this is about as close as we civilians can get in "sacrificing something to the war effort". It should hurt to watch this, and it should hurt to think about this, and it's good, necessary pain in the sense that it alerts us that something is very wrong in our collective body.

MovieMan0283 said...

In light of the recent Time cover (and I believe Newsweek and New Republic are also prominently highlighting the issue) it looks like the media might be taking on Afghanistan sooner than expected (I thought it would wait until after the midterms). And from a more complicated standpoint than I thought they would. Both facts are appreciated me, whatever the motivations behind them.

An interesting post on the recent Time cover, which I found on wordpress and commented on:

http://annaclover.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/what-happens-when-we-leave/