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Specialist Kyle Steiner in RESTREPO (Photo: Outpost Films/National Geographic Entertainment)

Produced & Directed by
Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Released by
National Geographic Entertainment
USA. 94 min. Rated

“One Platoon, One Year, One Valley” is the concise tag line for Restrepo, a “you are there” documentation of the physical and psychological extremes faced by young soldiers during the full length of their deployment against the hidden enemy in a grueling battleground.

The Korengal Valley lies in northeast Afghanistan, north of the Khyber Pass, surrounded by beautiful mountains that soar more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Ancient villages of stone and cedar cling to the rocks, withstanding freezing snow and intense heat. The rugged, isolated geography has withstood centuries of conquerors, smugglers, and ideologues on their way to Kabul from the nearby border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. It had been dubbed “The Valley of Death” for the high number of American lives already lost there when photographer Tim Hetherington and journalist Sebastian Junger first arrived in 2008 to cover U.S. soldiers fighting the Taliban for ABC News and Vanity Fair.

Toting their own cameras, directors Hetherington and Junger returned five times for a month each to join a platoon of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade as they established and held on to a tenuous outpost named in memoriam for a fallen medic, Private First Class Juan Restrepo. (The military terms and the soldiers’ slang, let alone their tattoos, are only explained in War, Junger’s companion book to the film, which expands on his articles.) The physical toll (minus the smells of filthy uniforms and burning human waste) is felt immediately—the carrying of the 50-plus pounds of gear and weapons, carving out the barely habitable outpost with shovels, and living off the limited supplies dropped by helicopter. All those flexing muscles aren’t just for preening. They are waiting for the frequent adrenaline-rush of bullets flying from guerrillas gathering yards away.

The psychological impact is just as visceral. Of course, it is striking how young they look, or at least to me. Most of them are in their twenties, the same ages as my sons. Though only a couple provide much of a biography, we get to know the personalities of about a dozen men in intense action and during the torpor of exhaustion and boredom between attacks. In battle, one soldier howls when his buddy is struck, emphasizing that they are fighting instinctively for their band of brothers more than abstract ideals. Crucial to the insights of the film are the reflective interviews three months after their deployment, when they start to let themselves deal with their emotions, particularly grief over the death of Pfc Restrepo.

Their earnest young leader, Captain Dan Kearney, also has to be a diplomat as he tries to win the hearts and minds of the local population. He holds weekly liaison meetings with village elders to promise civilian projects, while he hopes for intelligence on Taliban activities, but the canny bearded elders have far more experience and hold grudges over past, and continuing, errors. (They can probably also figure out the stream of f-bombs dropped on them even if the translator avoids direct quotes.) The gradual revelations from both sides about what Kearney calls “the cow incident” illustrate the difficulties for foreigners fighting amidst people whose allegiance is up for grabs.

For civilians, Restrepo immeasurably enhances our understanding of the soldiers’ point-of-view in a frustrating war fought ridge by ridge. This documentary makes dispatches from the front comprehensible in a way that generals’ and pundits’ talk elsewhere doesn’t. National Geographic Channel will televise the film this fall, but doubtlessly the constant spew of profanity will be bleeped. These tough guys fighting on our behalf deserve to be heard unfiltered. Nora Lee Mandel
June 25, 2010



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