Since the vast majority of people who see the new war documentary “Restrepo” will never strap on a camouflaged helmet and a flak jacket and whatever other necessary tools of war, its greatest purpose will likely be the way in which it exposes other war movies.
Even the best war films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon” or “The Thin Red Line,” however brilliant, are often concerned with the careful exploration and conveyance of the themes and tones of warfare usually as we understand them from a literary perspective. We’re used to rich dramatizations of self-sacrifice, the bureaucracy and fog of war and whatever else you think about when you consider men in combat.
But because there are usually talented storytellers and filmmakers behind these spectacles, there’s almost always an order – a narrative backbone – to these war pictures that leaves an audience satisfied when the story ends. A squad or a platoon survives a forest of experience and emerges on the other side – light a few soldiers – enlightened or shattered or changed in some clean, explicable way.
“Restrepo” completely forgoes that creative artifice. If there is a narrative to the documentary, it’s merely the succession of one day following the next over the course of a year in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, labeled the deadliest battleground in the country by soldiers and news organizations. Soldiers stationed at outposts in the Korengal engage enemy Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters several times a day, which is mostly unheard of in other American conflicts.
The U.S. Army has struggled to wield influence in the valley, which is overseen by clannish elders who meet with the platoon’s leaders weekly. A feature film or fictionalized version of “Restrepo” might have sought to tighten the story perhaps by emphasizing the creation of Outpost Restrepo, a strategic fire outpost on top of a ridge overlooking the valley that American soldiers built in spite of unrelenting enemy fire. It was named for fallen fellow soldier Juan “Doc” Restrepo who is killed early in the film and seen only from footage in a single, goofy home video clip shot as the platoon prepared for deployment to Afghanistan.
But no tone or scene is sustained for any significant period of time. “Restrepo” really ends up being about disconnection in war. It’s as much about a deadly firefight as it is about a cow that oddly wanders into a perimeter of razor-sharp concertina wire, forcing the soldiers to execute the animal to relieve it of its misery. That leads to a visit from village leaders who demand payment for the slaughtered cow – roughly $500. But the Army refuses to pay cash and offers the equivalent in rice, beans and other food.
One minute a soldier is playing a guitar, the next minute enemy rounds are thwapping the dirt around his ankles. Then they’re in a makeshift mess hall, wrestling each other and making steak sandwiches. The movie lulls you into the strange reality of an entrenched platoon. The banal is followed by the bizarre and the violent. While the men fighting in the valley – on both sides – may be there for concrete, personal reasons, the war itself doesn’t seem to honor them or reward them. Even when they venture into an unknown piece of the valley and encounter brutal enemy forces that kill the platoon’s most skilled fighter, the Americans also kill several civilians and injure a number of children, frustrating Capt. Dan Kearney who has been trying to repair relations with the locals.
When that top soldier, Sgt. Larry Rougle, is killed, one soldier – a “professional tough guy” as Sgt. Kyle Steiner calls him – seems to lose his mind as others stare vacantly at the panic. Others use the moment to reassert their leadership. In an interview, Steiner wonders what to think when the platoon’s finest soldier is so unceremoniously felled. “If this could happen to the best of us, what about the rest?” he asks.
Again, “Restrepo” stresses the incoherence. When Specialist Miguel Cortez speaks with an interviewer after the fighting – with chunks of his responses spliced throughout the movie – he’s always smiling, even as he explains that he prefers not to sleep anymore because he can’t escape nightmares. He’s taken various types and quantities of sleeping pills. Nothing dulls the terror. In a recent interview, co-director and Vanity Fair war correspondent Sebastian Junger called the valley an “anti-paradise,” which was probably a good way to describe Vietnam when U.S. soldiers were there too. It must be puzzling to fight for your life in an area at which you would otherwise marvel.
At the end of “Restrepo,” some of the platoon’s soldiers can matter-of-factly detail their time in the Korengal, including a soldier who was shot and then hit with rocket-propelled-grenade shrapnel fired by an enemy fighter standing only several yards away. Others confess their struggles, their inability to get a handle on the series of events they witnessed. What they’re seeing, what they’re struggling with and how it fuels their own terrors remain somewhat mysterious. You can see it in their faces. But when the documentary’s over, you still don’t really understand it, not entirely.
To its credit, “Restrepo” doesn’t try to unravel that mystery or reduce it. It’s a messy entrée to absurdities of battle. There isn’t any neat editing or narrative organization. Men try their best to bond as strange and awful things happen around them, and “Restrepo” does a better job than most war films exploring those extremes.