Restrepo may be the best movie of the year. The next few months are loaded with movies taking aim at year-end awards. But this compelling and provocative documentary looks like the only Oscar sure thing.
Two very talented documentary filmmakers, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, got a dream opportunity. They accompanied a platoon into Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, described by CNN as the most dangerous place in the world. It was an assignment that could easily have been their last.
Their camerawork, though, is so assured that I had to dash home and do some research. I had to double-check to make sure it wasn’t a reenactment. There’s little shake to the handheld cameras and yet the danger surrounding them is relentless. Hetherington and Junger must qualify as the most courageous filmmakers on Earth.
The movie is a mixture of two forms of material — footage shot in the midst of the danger and chaos in Afghanistan and interviews with the survivors shot some time later back in the States. And it’s a blend that works well.
When the platoon first enters Korangal Valley, a soldier remarks that he had felt certain it would be the place of his death. They would be like sitting ducks at the bottom of a barrel. The enemy could and would be everywhere around the valley’s rim. The soldiers could construct protective barriers, but which side of them would offer protection?
We see hillsides so still and quiet that they fill us with dread and the interviews form a narration that puts us in the minds of the men as they surveyed what would become their precarious home for the next year. Because of this, the movie possesses the same sense of nightmarish unease that distinguished last year’s The Hurt Locker. It also resembles Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The men spend much time peering through scopes hoping to get a glimpse of the enemy. They wish just once that they could see the enemy as they pull their triggers.
The movie is filled with violence, but there is surprisingly little carnage on screen. Either the filmmakers never had a camera rolling and pointed in the right direction at the right time to capture moments of death or they displayed good taste by leaving the footage on the cutting room floor.
Death is only glimpsed, glanced at sideways, but, as I said, the movie is filled with violence and this is where that perfect balance of war footage and interviews comes into play. The words, the painful pauses, the tears, and the tense, anguished expressions on the interviewees’ faces say it all.
The interviews are insidious. I was constantly on edge expecting to see someone get blown to bits. But, every time I thought it was safe to relax in my seat, the soldiers would use words, expressions, and silence to place images in my mind beyond anything I’d feared seeing.
The core of the movie tells how a much-liked soldier known as “Doc” Restrepo was killed and how the platoon remembered him by constructing a fortress that would allow many of them to survive the ordeal. Some considered the fortress, named Restrepo, their greatest achievement.
The movie’s finest achievement is its objectivity. Instead of being a simple anti-war statement, it allows us to enjoy that achievement along with the heroically portrayed soldiers. And it lets them conclude that, if their greatest achievement was simply surviving, then maybe, just maybe, this war was a hell best avoided.