Since its buzz-packed Sundance debut, “Restrepo” has (rightfully) became the key documentary about either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. A year’s worth of embedded combat footage is something no one else has equaled, and “Restrepo” is as visceral a piece of war coverage we’ve had yet.
It’s also been touted — both by critics and its makers — as an “apolitical” film, which is (presumably) an adjective of praise rather than just a descriptive one. In the documentary world, strongly opinionated reportorial footage is always perilously close to being dismissed as propaganda, so it’s either objectivity or propaganda critics can get behind.
Depending on who’s talking, the dividing line’s tricky: is “The Fog of War” an overly sympathetic portrait of Robert MacNamara, or does it just provide the rope with which MacNamara hangs himself? Is “An Inconvenient Truth” an accurate portrait of the future with some slight exaggerations, or is it unreliable agitprop?
Unlike the straightforward indictment of “Standard Operating Procedure,” “Restrepo” provides nothing to help orient you ideologically. It’s hard to get much of a read out of it, unless you want to view its final title cards — informing you the hard-fought area was lost anyway after the 173rd battalion withdrew — as a backhanded comment on the war’s futility. Either way, it’s just a matter of the record on the surface.
Depending on who you talk to, that lack of politicized footage can be a liability either from a liberal or conservative perspective. For Big Peace (the newest in Andrew Breitbart’s right-leaning empire), Ret. Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata couldn’t be more thrilled, expressing no doubt the film’s “100% accurate”: “Some may even question our purpose in Afghanistan,” he concedes. “But no one can walk away from this distinctly apolitical film and question the bravery of our troops in combat.”
Big Hollywood‘s Mark Tapson, meanwhile, gently chastises the film for ignoring context and failing to make the case for “an apocalyptic death match for the future of humanity.” For Rope of Silicon‘s Bill Cody, the fact that Junger’s been advocating for more troops on the ground in recent interviews means he’s actually made pro-war propaganda that’s been disguised as an apolitical look at the war.
It is a credit to the film’s ambitions to be at least perceived as apolitical that it can drive three people into such different ideological readings. A better question, though, is which of three hypothetical films would be best: a conservative-minded film that used combat footage to make the best possible case for ongoing conflict, a strictly neutral film whose goal is to archive for the future a representative visual sample of what contemporary warfare feels like, or a liberal indictment that uses battle footage to argue for the necessity of withdrawal?
Your political inclinations will direct your answer — but why should a hypothetical film with no ideological slant not be as valuable as a record in the long run as an actual polemic? “Restrepo”: an Rorschach blot of a documentary:
[Photos: “Restrepo,” National Geographic, 2010]