The old men, village elders, all seem to have red beards - bright red.
The mountains, with their craggy pine trees and sun-baked browns of stone and sand, look more like the American Southwest than even the Hollywood films about Afghanistan that were filmed in parts of the United States. But the valleys below are shockingly green, the houses a mix of pueblo-style hillside dwellings and more modern, if still primitive, structures.
And the combat is distressingly routine – deadly ambushes by unseen foes, beloved comrades killed, and grim resolve by the GIs to do their dirty job, or at least make it through their tour of duty.
“Restrepo,” the latest in a string of Middle East combat documentaries, has a smattering of eye-opening moments and a real feel for the frustrating Vietnam-like nature of the combat – troops stationed in isolated outposts, sniping at and being sniped at by enemy guerrillas.
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But it takes nothing from the sacrifice and bravery of those doing the fighting to point out that this is a pretty routine and somewhat tame installment in a now over-exposed documentary genre: the embedded combat film.
“Restrepo” was made by writer Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington, two men with cameras hanging out off and on for a year with a platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The platoon is comprised of 15 men stuck on a remote outcropping in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, a land of daily firefights. The men named their forward outpost after one of the first of their ranks to die there: Juan “Doc” Restrepo. The movie follows them from deployment to their return to Europe, where they were debriefed for interviews that provide the narrative structure of the film.
We see the platoon transition from “Dude, it can’t be that bad” swagger to “Good firefight, you can’t top that high” to “ I just want to get home” fatigue.
They smoke, horse around, and dig a base out of the rock in between firefights. We don’t get to know any of them, but these are big, strapping young men who hump huge packs up and down the hills and valleys, carrying the fight to the Taliban. They see themselves as warriors (one paints the Spartans of “300” on the wall of the base).
The film captures accidents (bombing a house full of children); testy meetings with village elders, irked at the death of a cow; and vivid, shaky-cam coverage of gun battles, complete with tracer bullets and helicopter and A-10 Warthog airstrikes.
But even though we see blood here and there, we don’t see graphic images of casualties. Hetherington and Junger treat American dead and wounded with a respect and a TV-friendly gentility. (They were on assignment from ABC News.) And they apparently never saw the enemy, dead or living, in the flesh.
The result is a movie that captures the grim routine of combat duty, and even quite a bit of combat, but that never shows us the foe, those who must be outsmarted and defeated. The soldiers suffer, swear, shoot and show their fear and grief. But what they’re doing feels too abstract, as if the filmmakers so bonded with them that they sanitize their experience for us just as these brave men sanitize what they’re going through for their families back home, to keep them from worrying.
Thus, we meet a few of the people they’re fighting to help, get a general lay of the land, but don’t get a full appreciation of what Pfc. Restrepo died for.
At this point in all of our Middle Eastern conflicts, we need more from a documentary than just a grunts-eye view of the frustrating nature of the fighting with its Vietnam parallels of a foe you can’t see, can’t crush and seemingly can’t out-wait in this decade-long war.
* * *
Cast: The men of Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade
Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Running time: 1:33
Rating: R; language throughout including some descriptions of violence