There are certain things that never change. One is that wars sacrifice young men and, increasingly, women (not to mention create “collateral damage,” i.e. dead civilians). Other things have changed significantly, however. For example, the reasons for and objectives of wars have become murkier and murkier in each succeeding conflict at least since World War II.
The documentary Restropo examines these age-old issues from the point of view of a single platoon (specifically the 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team) during a single deployment in Afghanistan. Author Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and British photographer Tim Hetherington embedded with the platoon during its 15 months in the Korangal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan.
Restropo is very much of a piece with last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. On the surface, they’re quite different. The latter is a taut thriller about a bomb disposal expert in Iraq (and of questionable accuracy, according to many Iraq war veterans); the former a documentary about real soldiers in Afghanistan. But both deal with the same fundamental questions, such as “What happens to these young men when the war is over?” How they can go from the adrenaline rush of combat back to real life?
In one of the most affecting moments in Restropo, one of the filmmakers (who maintain a very low profile, never appearing on camera, their voices only heard a few times) asks this question directly of a soldier. One moment he’s whooping in post-firefight relief, then the question is asked and he suddenly becomes quiet and shakes his head. He doesn’t know how he’ll adjust.
The soldiers themselves are the core of Restropo. We see them dealing with the things soldiers have dealt with since time immemorial: boredom, being away from home, constant danger, and the death of comrades. The latter looms over everything, particularly after “Doc” Restrepo, a platoon medic, is killed in early action. When the platoon pushes out to establish a new outpost, they name it after their fallen comrade. Other soldiers die in the film (although the filmmakers do not show the aftermath) and we experience the mix of reactions from the soldiers, from vengeful anger to tears.
The soldier who most stood out to me, and who captured the spirit of the film, is Misha Pemble-Belkin. Ironically, this self-proclaimed child of hippies who wouldn’t allow him to have toys guns ended up in the military. He’s literally pink cheeked, a touching combination on innocence, vulnerability, curiousity and anger. We see these soldiers frightened for their lives, or pumped up on adrenaline one moment, then they’re dancing together to a song and you see them for what they really are: young men (teenagers or early-20s at most) thrown into a chaotic and confusing situation, trying to stay alive while also acting as the front-line of a larger strategy. “Hearts and minds” as one soldier says casually over the radio.
Similarly to The Hurt Locker, Restropo doesn’t make any overt political statements, allowing the soldiers and their actions speak for themselves (although there are obviously decisions made about the footage shown, which could have a political intent). We see Captain Kearney, the leader of the platoon, attempting to convince tribal elders to help them out, and turn against the Taliban. Then in contrast to these “bigger picture” issues, we see one of his lieutenants negotiating with local farmers over a cow the soldiers had to kill after it became tangled in their concertina wire.
It’s this combination of the mundane and the geopolitical that reveals the messiness of the situation in Afghanistan. And when the platoon launches an offensive that accidentally kill a number of civilians, even Captain Kearney, a tough, blunt-spoken man (who questions the previous commander in the region quite directly), experiences subdued anguish.
Filmed in a cinema vérité-style with both HD and regular video cameras, Restrepo succeeds admirably in putting us right in the action (considerably moreso than most documentaries) but not in a manipulative way. The soldiers are thrilled to finish their deployment and head back. As the film ends, we learn that 42 soldiers died in the valley – and that the U.S. withdrew from the Korangal altogether in April 2010. Makes you wonder what it all was for…