Noble in effort, the documentary Restrepo follows the story of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, over a period of a year. Film-makers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger lived with the troops, while researching articles and books that were written about the experience. What the film portrays is a ground-level view of life in “the deadliest place on Earth” for American troops.
What the film delivers most pointedly are the soldiers themselves, through many different experiences, as raw recruits, deploying for the first time, living under constant fire, losing friends, killing innocents accidentally, and battling the elusive and deadly enemy. It’s a life that most Americans would find hard to fathom, the intensity of warfare, the constant danger, and while there is a clear set of goals (to kill insurgents and to win the favor of the locals), it’s a part of the world so different, so isolated, with a fully different culture and language that not many of the troops understand.
What is also fascinating is the people and the landscape of Afghanistan itself. The mountainous country has a great rugged beauty, but it’s isolated and the people that live there seem to come from another century. They are farmers, a lot of whom have their beards dyed an unusual red color. Settling in for the stretch of time, the place takes on a greater reality to those of us who have never been anywhere near a place that we read about daily in the newspaper.
The film, for its goals of depicting the realities of the lives of the soldiers, does a good job. And there is a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned throughout. But it doesn’t really soar or strike any notes of surprise or revelation. While it’s amazing to see what these young Americans face in this valley, their fears, joys, and tragedies, it’s not really different than many stories of war depicted over time. It’s unique to the here and now of Afghanistan, and it’s telling, but not something grand or awing.
One thing that really struck me was how the leader of the troop, who does good work and leads well, is so lacking in training in the meeting and negotiating with the locals. He works through a translator, speaking to tribal elders, but his messages are not profound, not tuned to what the locals may react to positively. There is such a lack of cultural understanding, even in his noble and well-meaning talks, but it’s little wonder that the impact of Americans in Afghanistan or other countries is so fraught with failure and negativity. And it’s not through a lack of desire to make the situation work, but perhaps a lack of understanding and training.
It’s one thing to be a soldier, another to be an emissary.
Restrepo is an interesting film. Not the most powerful documentary, but still offers insights to the war in Afghanistan and the lives of the American soldiers there.