In 2007, journalist/filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent 15 months on assignment for Vanity Fair, embedded with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley aka “the deadliest place on Earth.” Restrepo is the intimate documentary that chronicles the soldiers’ lives from their giddy plane ride over to their trip home.
The film is conspicuously free of political judgment. These guys are here to do a job. And in this case the job is to build a staging ground for the battles that need to be waged in this no-man’s-land. But it isn’t all heroics and battles, as you see in most war films. What strikes you is that these men are surrounded by an unseen enemy that may shoot at them from their hidden redoubt at any time, and yet they build their camp and come in at night to joke around and dance together to disco music.
The men name the camp Restrepo after a fallen comrade, and the specter of death is ever present. They have firefights with their invisible enemy on a regular basis, but it only punctuates the boredom. There are scenes of them meeting with locals and trying to root out the bad guys, but it is difficult to know who is good and bad here. And there are instances where they make fatal mistakes and innocents are collateral damage. You get the feeling that our guys are nearly flying blind, but they are so earnest and so young and you just know they are doing the best they can.
There are interviews with the men cut in throughout the film that were shot after they made it home. Most of the guys have not and may never get over the experience. The film also includes a battle scene where one of the men is killed that is just plain heartbreaking.
Restrepo is probably the closest to being in a war that many of us will get (I hope), but it gives you a very raw first hand look at what we ask of our young men in uniform (there are no women in this platoon.) It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is nominated for the 2011 Academy Award. It isn’t any easy film to watch, but it should be seen by all.