Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Restrepo is a soldier, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, big personality, good with a guitar, died early on in the Second Platoon, Battle Company’s 15-month tour in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, bleeding out from a gunshot wound while in the helicopter taking him toward medical help, leaving behind a flicker of self-shot video from the week before deployment. “Restrepo,” the documentary installment of the segmented Sundance 2010 opening night, gets its title from him, but also from the scraggly bunker the platoon builds deeper into insurgent territory — Outpost Restrepo, named in honor of their fallen friend.
Restrepo isn’t the first or last member of the Second Platoon to be killed over the course of the year that journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington (who share co-director credit on the film) spent embedded with them. Stationed in a remote and incredibly dangerous area, the unit struggles with the seemingly insurmountable task of overseeing the building of a road through the valley with the help of locals, who are less than inclined to lend their support because of the previous captain’s tendency to kill off the uninvolved along with the insurgents.
But mostly they seem to be there to get shot at, and to shoot back, especially the dozen-plus men at Outpost Restrepo, who are under constant fire. “Restrepo” is partially about how danger becomes normalized — while death is always lurking for these men, they still end up goofing off, roughhousing, singing. In one shot, a soldier climbs on top of a massive machine gun to perform some kind of maintenance check while carrying on a conversation over walkie-talkie with a colleague about the type of ranch he grew up on.
Junger and Hetherington shot the film themselves, and have some spectacular combat footage that’s almost difficult to wrap your head around — the handheld camera, the whip pans to action that’s already going on, the sense of adrenaline-addled disorientation has become the cinematic language of modern war, and when the film dumps you directly into an encounter with an IED, it takes work to remind yourself that it’s not, in fact, “The Hurt Locker,” and that the bullets peppering the ground at the feet of the man you’re watching would take at least a few toes off if they connected.
Pointing out that “Restrepo” is a nonfiction companion to “The Hurt Locker” is unavoidable — there are direct echoes in the way the men interact, in the generally apolitical tone, in the microfocus and structuring around timeframe instead of narrative arc, in the observation made by one man that getting shot at is an incomparable high. But I was also reminded of Kimberly Peirce’s muddier, emotionally anguished “Stop-Loss,” in terms of the tenderness with which the soldiers are treated, and in the portrayal of their sense of brotherhood. The film peppers footage taken during the year with more intimate interviews with some of them afterward, boys with baby faces and tough-guy tattoos who alternate between looking world-weary and painfully young. That tenderness, I think, is partially a natural outgrowth of being embedded, and part of the reason embedding exists. How can you live with a group of people, unified under the threat of constant danger, without feeling like you’re invested, one of them, part of the team?
It’s not a complaint, more an observation — there were times when I wondered if the film was being particularly gentle with its subjects, who all come across as very nice boys; who are, for the most part, free of virulent racism; and who might come to hate the assignment, but who never regret serving their country.
That would also account for what I found to be the film’s only major misstep, a series of comic bits that play over the credits, and that come across as, well, outtakes. This isn’t a Jackie Chan movie, and sending the audience away laughing isn’t a sentiment that at all seems to fit this otherwise artful, excellent doc.
“Restrepo” does not yet have U.S. distribution.