A White Tank Top Review: Restrepo

It’s tough to recommend a film that filled me with resignation and unease but that’s what I’m going to do. Restrepo is a documentary about an Army outpost in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, a position that has since been abandoned, making me, and I imagine everyone else in the audience, wonder what was the point?

Filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger spent over a year with 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Battle Company as they raised and defended O.P. Restrepo (named after Pfc. Juan “Doc” Restrepo, who had been killed at the beginning of their 15month deployment). Life on the outpost is wildly unpleasant—the soldiers take enemy fire an average of six times a day, eat only MREs, shower irregularly, talk with truculent locals and burn their own excrement. 

The digital cameras used by Hetherington and Junger give crisp pictures of the squalid intimacy of Restrepo but blur when zoomed into the distance. The visuals in the film are a good metaphor: the soldiers see each other clearly, but the enemy is fuzzier.

While using no more than two cameras at any one time hamstrings the directors, they combine to produce an effective portrait of chaos. A fictional film would use elaborate setups to recreate (and make sense of) the crossfire at Operation Rock Avalanche, the deadly skirmish at the heart of the film. But Restrepo is more powerful for the incompleteness of its battle scenes—the enemy is always out of frame, unseen but for bullet and RPG tracers. I think the filmmakers try to be as nonpolitical as possible, but when a soldier completely breaks down in the aftermath of Rock Avalanche I had to look away, damning the forces that put those men in Afghanistan.

More review and photos after the jump.

In addition to the footage from the Korengal, many soldiers participated in solo interviews, their faces in relief against black backgrounds. Here we learn hard ironies, like the fact that Spc. Pemble-Belkin’s hippie parents would not let him have even a turtle-shaped squirt gun when he was growing up, so deep was their distaste for weapons. Sgt. Hijar and Spc. Cortez movingly describe their inability to shake the deaths of their comrades (Cortez prefers insomnia to his PTSD nightmares). It is heartrending to watch each man in turn try a stiff upper lip smile, with shining eyes, as they talk about the men who were lost.

Even more than the violence and its aftereffects, I was stunned by the soldier’s lack of ideology. There aren’t references to the necessity of going on missions to protect the American people (and certainly not the Afghanis). Winning “hearts and minds” is a punchline for Battle Company—they wake up every day with little objective other than making sure their buddies aren’t shot. 

In one scene, after members from a sister company are killed, Capt. Kearney offers a short speech on the brutal realities of war and says whoever wants to pray can pray. Most of his men sit quietly with open eyes on the hillside, their watchfulness replacing religion. 

I’m not sure if it was intentional, but Junger and Hetherington include a scene that is very reminiscent of one in The Hurt Locker. At a crucial moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, she cuts from a soldier firing to a long slow motion shot of the bullet shells dancing in the sand below. I found the sequence, which emphasizes the glinting beauty of the casings, conflicted and strange. In Restrepo, the directors offer an unglamorous scene where casings being sprayed all down the legs of a soldier. Here, the shells are an annoyance to the man firing—he has to shake them out of his shoe as he continues to strafe an enemy position.

The Hurt Locker ends with a Christ-like Sgt. James leaving home in the States and returning to combat. The soldiers in Restrepo have less complicated feelings as they depart the Korengal. To a man, they never want to go back.

Now playing at the Varsity Theatre, 1303 NE 45th Street.