Like casualties, war movies keep mounting. Now here’s “Restrepo,” for which square-jawed, thrill-addicted journalistic Tyrannosaurus Sebastian Junger, along with fellow war-zone regular Tim Hetherington, embedded with a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s “deadliest place on Earth,” the Korengal Valley. While they were there, people got hurt and killed — mostly Afghanis, but some Americans too — and Vanity Fair and ABC News got fresh reports about it.
The film is an elaboration of sorts, although noteworthy for its discreet refusal to elaborate. It has been shorn of context or comment, and approximates the apolitical, anthropological detachment of a cinema-verité style. It’s not so much an old-fashioned idea of objectivity, necessarily, as a faith in the purity of borne witness. Aside from a handful of after-the-fact interviews with the survivors, whose faces all look haunted, even when smiling defensively, the experience of the film is a distillation of the experience of being there on the ground with them. An almost claustrophobically narrow focus is partly the point.
Junger, of “The Perfect Storm” fame, is a fine and brave journalist, but he somehow makes a posture out of not having a stance. He also has written a book about this experience, called “War,” and there’s something contradictory and unsettling about his impulse to strip everything down to a basic essence while also rolling it out across multiple media platforms. Then again, there’s something contradictory and unsettling about making war.
“Restrepo” takes its name from both the platoon’s felled medic and the frequently besieged outpost that his brothers in arms went on to establish in his memory. It begins with amateur video of the eponymous 20-year-old private drunkenly goofing off with his buddies en route to deployment. More than once, with enthusiasm, he shouts, “We’re goin’ to war!” Kind of a yahoo, you might think, if you didn’t already feel queasy from the realization that you won’t have a chance to get to know him better. Later, another guy says there’s no better high than being in a firefight, and likens it to being on crack. Then he’s asked how he’ll fit back in to civilian life when and if he goes home. “I have no idea,” he replies.
The men took fire just about every day. They endured what all warriors do: the terror, absurdity, boredom, strategy, work, drudgery, valor, violence. They had their days of dancing, crying, shooting, dying. They had their campaign for hearts and minds.
“There is the sense they’re fighting for each other more than for ideology,” Roger Ebert has observed of “Restrepo.” That seems right. And that sense pervades other current war movies too. It’s stirring. It rouses our admiration for the men, our sense of honor, our grief. But it also reminds us that after a while, or maybe right from the beginning, a war doesn’t even need an ideology. It just needs men who’ll kill for each other.
Eventually, “Restrepo” explains by way of brief epilogue, American forces gave up on the Korengal and withdrew entirely. This seems pointless, you might think. This movie, this war, all movies, all wars.