The tagline for Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, sums it up fairly well: "One platoon, one year, one valley." In a sense, it's the ultimate example of a reality show, filmed by two photojournalists, both regular contributors to Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm).

Afghanistan's Korengal Valley (near the border of Pakistan) was considered one of the most dangerous military hot spots in the world. In 2005, Taliban insurgents cornered a four-man SEAL team there—only one of them survived—then destroyed the helicopter that was sent to rescue them, killing sixteen more soldiers. According to the film, American military were under fire here every day; they were even shot at while asleep in their barracks. Troops literally seized control from hilltop to hilltop, a hundred yards at a time.

Hetherington and Junger obtained permission to spend the better part of a year (beginning in May 2007) with the Second Platoon, Battle Company in Korengal. Much of their time was spent with the 15-man strategic outpost high on a mountain in the valley, nicknamed "Restrepo" by the troops in honor of their medic Juan "Doc" Restrepo, killed in action shortly after arrival.

173rd US Airborne soldiers during a firefight

173rd US Airborne soldiers during a firefight

Restrepo is not a politicized documentary. There are no interviews with politicians, generals, or Afghans—only the soldiers involved. The filmmakers' goal was simply to tell the stories of the soldiers and show some of what they endured, holed up in an outpost with no running water, Internet, phones, or at times, electricity or heat. If these soldiers needed backup, a helicopter would never arrive in time to save them.

Nor is this a violent bloodbath like many war movies. There is gunfire, sure, and harrowing accounts from interviews describing the violence. But aside from the body of one fallen soldier, we never see anyone get shot or witness the aftermath. The filmmakers wanted to be respectful of the dead and wounded, and it's not as if they could depict Taliban fighters being blown away like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet despite the lack of violence on screen, Restrepo is just as experiential as Saving Private Ryan, if not more so since the cameras put viewers in the midst of the encounters. At the same time, it recalls Jarhead and The Hurt Locker in studying the psychology of these soldiers—the tension and tedium of waiting for battle, the heightened adrenaline that comes from being shot at.

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Specialists Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy relax at Outpost Restrepo

Specialists Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy relax at Outpost Restrepo

The footage is often remarkable. Cameras literally place us over the shoulder of gunners at the Restrepo outpost. State-of-the-art helicopters are shown overhead launching missiles at enemy targets on nearby mountainsides. I was struck by the casual way these soldiers went about their work, literally making small talk while preparing for a firefight. Similarly, a scene where soldiers are laughing and joking about the Taliban fighters that they just shot to pieces conjures a strange mix of victory and revulsion as they enact gleeful vengeance on the enemy for killing one of their comrades.

Indeed, the interviews and conversations in the film are far more captivating. Hetherington and Junger met with several of the soldiers three months after the end of their deployment. This is how the violence is largely depicted—through the accounts of those involved. Witnessing the toughness and emotion of their experiences through these interviews is powerful.

Also interesting are the scenes where the soldiers attempt to cooperate with the Afghan locals. From discussions between the platoon captain and the local Afghan leaders, it's clear there are frustrations on both sides. In one of the more memorable scenes, a group of Afghan men complain to the soldiers for killing one of their cows. The soldiers explain they put the animal out of its misery after it had been caught in their barbed wire. The men want recompense; the soldiers offer food supplies. The men want cash; the soldiers explain they don't have it. Public relations like these seem like an exercise in futility.

There are limitations to the footage, unfortunately. Scenes involving handheld cameras can be disorienting (if not dizzying) and the sound is often very poor, only faintly picking up conversations. That's probably another reason why the interviews are more interesting than the actual footage.

Captain Dan Kearney meets with local Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley

Captain Dan Kearney meets with local Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley

The biggest problem with Restrepo is that it all feels a little too detached and removed—for all the talk of on-site filming, the documentary doesn't immerse or educate enough. There's a lack of cohesive narrative in chronicling the year's events. We get bits and pieces, but no overarching progress report. And the soldiers aren't developed enough as "characters" to invest in. The footage is personable and intimate, we learn to recognize the faces of certain soldiers, but it all amounts to the military equivalent of an episode of Cops (with much higher stakes, of course).

Junger recently released an accompanying book—simply titled War— that sounds far more informative. But the goal with this film isn't to inform as much as to create an experience. In that regard, Restrepo mostly succeeds, making us further appreciate what men and women endure in military service.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Recall the scene where a few soldiers are gunning down Taliban fighters, joking about how they blew their bodies apart. How did you feel watching that scene?
  2. Is war justified by God? Are some wars more just than others? Which ones? What is your opinion about the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan?
  3. How should Christians in the military conduct themselves when killing? Can such a question be answered without being in the heat of combat?
  4. Some of the soldiers wonder how they will adjust to civilian life after experiencing the adrenaline high of war. What answers do you have for this and how can the church help in this adjustment? (See this story for further discussion on the church's response.)

The Family Corner

Restrepo is rated R for language throughout including depictions of violence. There is no graphic war violence a la Saving Private Ryan. Though there's lots of gunfire, no one is shot on screen. But a soldier's body is shown in the background, accompanied by shock and grief from comrades. There are also some shots of wounded children due to collateral damage. The violence is depicted through the interviews and conversations with the soldiers. Profanity is abundant, including f-bombs and misuse of Christ's name. In one scene, the platoon captain delivers a profanity-ridden motivational speech, and then leads the troops in silent prayer. Soldiers are also often shown smoking cigarettes and cigars.

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
R (for language throughout, including some depictions of violence)
Directed By
Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Run Time
1 hour 33 minutes
The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Juan 'Doc Restrepo, Dan Kearney
Theatre Release
August 06, 2010 by Outpost Films / National Geographic Entertainment
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