The Hurt Locker is a superb film, well cast, well acted, well written and well directed – as its awards went on to show. The trouble is something more true to life was bound to come along and steal its thunder. Film-makers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger have done just that with the real deal, an unforgettable documentary that says ‘this is war on the frontline’, and there is nothing any fictional account, regardless of how well made, can do about it. The Winner of the Grand Jury Prize Documentary 2010 at Sundance, Restrepo places you right in the heart of the action with no rest bite, but a front-seat view.
Restrepo is a claustrophobic dose of hardcore reality with haunting but gripping reactions, filmed whilst Hetherington and Junger followed the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, during their 14-month deployment in the deadliest place on earth, the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. It flies you in and leaves you and the boys behind with the almost faceless enemy, the Taliban, whilst giving you the ‘safest seat’ to witness the terror, hope and irony, a visual picture of man’s triumph will to survive in the starkest but most stunning surroundings.
Restrepo is the name of a fallen comrade, a well-liked medic who loses his live and comes to symbolise the platoon’s reason to push forward. After his death, and rallied by a solider with one of the toughest jobs on the planet, the enigmatic and no-nonsense leader, complete with potty mouth, Capt. Dan Kearney, the platoon build a firebase in the mountains to take out the Taliban. The film just allows events to play out with no commentary, apart from the post-deployment, close-up interviews with some of the men who symbolise everything you need to know about the effects of war on the soul.
The documentary highlights the contradictory nature of war, the almost ‘pointlessness’ of it all as normal existence carries on regardless, alongside sporadic pockets of fighting and ‘army family’ relationships. After films like The Hurt Locker, trying to separate this experience from fictional film accounts is tough, though, and this is demonstrated within the footage with the lads playing video war games. It is all very surreal and exhilarating that you dare not turn away for a second, for fear of missing any crucial moment – much like its ‘actors’.
Even humour can be found among the insanity that is wartime, with Kearney and co having weekly pow-wows with the dyed-bearded town elders who seen to have all the power in their hands, including nipping Taliban support in the bud, and hence, localised fighting. But like a bunch of stubborn gangsters enjoying the mock deity and attached power too much, they do little to change things and bring peace. It is these scenes, including the death of a cow, that are particularly fascinating as an anthropological study of different cultures and values. You can’t help but wince/snigger every time Kearney says the F word at the meetings that seems to have little effect on his audience.
If we are honest, there is also a morbid fascination, like rubber necking on a motorway after a crash, in waiting to see possible carnage – as a fictional film would depict. But like all well-censored news reports, the film-makers wisely steer clear of the obvious, angling for a solid balance between action and reaction from the soldiers to drive the film’s impact home, climaxing with the final relief you and the Restrepo boys feel that most of them are going home. As with the video games they play, there is a feeling of glee and satisfaction when a Taliban sniper is taken out (again, you do not see this), but you are brought back to earth with a thud at the injuries and death of local villagers, resulting in the consequences and responsibilities flooding back. Yes, this is a biased account, but it is merely an overwhelming snapshot of one single experience that captures the true heart of combat, as well as tackles man’s awesome ability to process the ugliest of experiences and sense of loss.
If you must see one depiction of what war, see Restrepo – it’s like working in a newsroom environment again, only with the gore and imagery of death edited out. In addition, a separate warning to those who suffer from vertigo with some of the breathtaking ‘on-top-of-the-world’ panoramic views that envelop the screen at times. Restrepo will affect and stick with all who go to watch it – it is true on-the-edge action.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie