The Valley of Death – Doc puts audience on the front lines of Afghanistan in ‘Restrepo’

Misha Pemble is startled by the sound of gunfire during a firefight across the valley with insurgents at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Below, Pemble, left, and Murphy, right, from the Second Platoon, enjoy a joke. At bottom, clothes hang out to dry as rain clouds gather over the Restrepo bunker.

Misha Pemble is startled by the sound of gunfire during a firefight across the valley with insurgents at the Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Below, Pemble, left, and Murphy, right, from the Second Platoon, enjoy a joke. At bottom, clothes hang out to dry as rain clouds gather over the Restrepo bunker.

You don’t need a Wikileaks account to know that things aren’t going well for America in Afghanistan; you just need to watch the gripping two-hour documentary “Restrepo.”

Embedded within a small company in Northern Afghanistan, filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger stayed with U.S. soldiers for a 15-month tour of duty. The company has been ordered to build an outpost that overlooks one of the deadliest areas in Afghanistan, the Korengal Valley. The mountaintop is in the “middle of nowhere,” and though they can see the larger base camp from on high and watch as helicopters land and take off, they may as well be in another country, as one soldier says.

Misha Pemble (left) and Murphy (right) from Second Platoon enjoy a joke at the Restrepo outpost. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. June 2008.

Misha Pemble (left) and Murphy (right) from Second Platoon enjoy a joke at the Restrepo outpost.
Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
June 2008.

Clothes hang out to dry as rain clouds gather over the Restrepo bunker high up on the edges of the Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. June 2008.

Clothes hang out to dry as rain clouds gather over the Restrepo bunker high up on the edges of the Korengal Valley.
Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
June 2008.

Taliban fighters fire on the soldiers early and often (the doc gets its name from the company’s medic, one of the first casualties after arriving). Ostensibly, the reason for being in the valley is to provide security so that later (much, much later), a paved road can be built, bringing ? what exactly?

“You’ll all make more money!” explains the captain to a gathering of tribal elders.

“Restrepo” advances impressionistically, with scenes of battle followed by scenes of camaderie. The center of the film, however, is an operation named Rock Slide, which ends in the death of several soldiers.

Hetherington and Junger let the soldiers tell the story, interviewed after they have returned to Italy. Their eyes tell the story, while their words are careful and thought out. This is the look of a torn and frayed psyche.

The film then returns to the original footage, which happens quickly in a confusing and horrifying way. The filmmakers — one of whom is a war photographer — shoot as much as they can while keeping out of the line of fire.

“Restrepo” lets us draw our own conclusions about the war and leaves out much of the background. We don’t know where this campaign sits within a larger context. We know very little about the soldiers’ lives back home, what drove them here and what they think about the war. We also never see the enemy, but then again, neither do the soldiers. Instead, we see “collateral damage,” in the form of wounded children.

For the company, it’s all about camaraderie, with long stretches of boredom in a small outpost interrupted by gunfire. The fear never goes away. One soldier wonders how he is ever going to go back to regular society, and we wonder this, too, when we see the pure adrenalin rush of firing on the enemy. One is reminded of “The Hurt Locker” and that film’s protagonist, and how cheating death every day can become a drug.

The outpost established, several soldiers dead or injured and 15 months into the operation, the men are allowed to return to their families. They’re proud of their mission accomplished, but as a title card tells us at the end, the military eventually pulled out of the region at a total cost of 50 American lives, unknown Afghani civilian deaths and yet-to-be-seen physical and psychological damage.

The British admitted defeat in the country 1880. The Russians couldn’t make it work in the 1980s. What are we doing there, again?

‘RESTREPO’
****
Length: 93 minutes
Rating: R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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