From May 2007 to July 2008 Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed deep in the remote Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan. The soldiers of Second Platoon established and peopled a fifteen man outpost at this, one of the most treacherous postings of the war. To date close to fifty American soldiers have lost their lives in the Korengal. Second Platoon, in common with so many before them, sustained casualties among their number. Shortly before filming officially began they lost their medic PFC Juan Restrepo. They named the outpost in his memory. The extraordinary record of that time, shot by journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, became the documentary Restrepo. Restrepo is their story in their words.
Although barely acknowledged by the outside world, at the height of the Afghan conflict the Korengal Valley was recognised to be the deadliest place on Earth. By the end of 2007 nearly a fifth of the combat in Afghanistan was staged on her ridges and outcrops. Restrepo sets its unflinching sights on one strategic outpost deep in the heart of the deadly valley. Between them Tim and Sebastian made ten helicopter trips into the Korengal beginning in June 2007, a month after Second Platoon had arrived. They dug in with the platoon, manning the exposed position and capturing the boredom, humour and utter hopeless terror of daily life on the rocky OP.
Eating, sleeping and surviving alongside the soldiers, Junger and Hetherington shadowed their every move, doing everything short of returning enemy fire. Three months after the end of deployment they reunited with the unit at its base in Vicenza, Italy. Using two Veri-Cams, a light and sound package and two cameramen, they conducted a series of interviews with their principle characters. Initially intended as an underscore for the vérité, these interviews instead became an integral part of the project and ultimately gave Restrepo some of its most affecting footage.
My first naive reaction to Restrepo was one of shock at how incredibly young the boys on screen were. Traces of teenaged acne still clung to clenched jaw-lines as they spoke aloud the most adult issue of all – that of their own mortality. The survivors of this contemporary Band of Brothers have lived through a war far beyond the Imagineering of any Spielberg/Hanks collaboration and hindsight imbued their memories with a haunting honesty and level of introspection that will stay with me for some time.
Both Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are experienced at combat reportage and with Restrepo they have combined their narrative and photographic skills to devastating effect. The final result is an immersive, living, breathing, flick book of the unpalatable reality of warfare that snatches you into the action and refuses to let you exhale. Lacking the traditional documentary trappings of narration, outside opinion or political rhetoric, the film simply and powerfully proffers the experience of war through the eyes of the men who wage it.
Despite critical parallels being drawn with The Hurt Locker, Restrepo has far more in common with the terrible intimacy of Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon than with the Yankee Doodle blandness of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winner. The poignancy of the film is a testament to the bond its makers forged with Second Platoon and to their unprecedented access. The disbelief as a beloved member of the unit is lost and the desperate grasp for the reassurance of a quick passing is captured with the same respect and lack of judgement as a chant for sheer bloody revenge. Some are shown praying for fallen colleagues, others chose to stand silent close by. Could you/would you pray? Perhaps, but you surely would not chose to worship in a place that would make a man of faith question the very existence of God.
Half these boys don’t yet need to shave every day. All of them no longer sleep easy at night. The American military has not seen the like of the fifteen months of fighting they lived and died through since vets returned from Vietnam. A young Specialist, Pemble, is observed drawing the Korengal Valley over and over again. As a child he was forbidden to own a squirt gun shaped like a turtle because of the violence it symbolised. At OP Restrepo he bore a full arsenal every day. He sends home the pictures of the deadly valley, “The only thing I know how to draw” by way of explanation of where he has gone and what he has seen. A part of him will never return.
The intention of this film was to deploy its audience with Second Platoon and to submerge them in their war. It utterly succeeds. Restrepo held my emotions and my attention in white knuckle grip and did not yield until long after the credits rolled. Visceral, brutally honest and heartbreakingly real, Restrepo is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and an absolute must see.
Restrepo is released in the UK on 8th October
To host a regional premiere please visit Dogwoof’s Ambassador’s Programme here