There was an initial flurry of news coverage when military operations began in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, but that was over nine years ago. After March 2003, Iraq dominated U.S. news. More recently, domestic issues have moved to the fore. The war in Afghanistan is now reported, if at all, in brief statistics and general assessments.
The two journalists who made Restrepo, Tim Hetheringon and Sebastian Junger, wanted to change that approach. The best explanation of their intentions is provided in a “mission statement” at the film’s website:
Studio: Virgil Films/National Geographic Entertainment
Film Length: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080i
HD Codec: MPEG-2
Audio: English DD 5.1 (448kp/ps); English DD 2.0 (224kb/ps)
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: June 25, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Dec. 7, 2010
The Korengal Valley in Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan has proven so hazardous to coalition forces that it is known as “the Valley of Death”. In May 2007, the soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne, were assigned to the Korengal. In June, Junger joined them for several weeks. He returned with Hetherington in September. They stayed a year.
Although it isn’t specified in the documentary, the Korengal was considered a key area for disrupting enemy supply lines. The challenge for U.S. forces was to control this vast region with fewer than the ideal number of soldiers, because so many military resources were still committed in Iraq. The company commander, Capt. Dan Kearney, adopted a bold strategy. As a sign of defiance to the anti-coalition forces that daily fired on his troops, Capt. Kearney had his men build a new outpost, which they literally dug out of the ground and built from nothing, often working under fire. Capt. Kearney wanted the anti-coalition forces to know that the Americans were there to stay. He described it as giving the finger to the enemy.
The men of 2ndPlatoon christened the outpost “O.P. Restrepo” after Sgt. Juan Restrepo, a popular medic who was one of the platoon’s first casualties in the Korengal. Restrepo’s death was, for many of the platoon members, one of their first experiences of losing a company member.
The outpost typically held a complement of fifteen soldiers. Restrepo chronicles both its construction and life in the completed outpost. Hetherington and Junger had videocameras running whenever possible. The soldiers appear to have adapted easily to the presence of cameras, probably because Hetherington and Junger were sharing the same hardships and taking the same fire. Shared privation breeds familiarity, and the cameras captured what you would have seen if you’d been standing there – in a facility with no sanitation or running water, fired upon daily, and sufficiently remote that a full-scale attack would have decimated the position long before help could arrive (a fact of which the soldiers were acutely aware).
Other locations are also shown. The cameras followed Capt. Kearney to his weekly meetings with local village elders, during which he attempted to obtain their cooperation and address any grievances. These are extraordinary scenes, because (among other things) they demonstrate the degree to which language and culture separate the American troops and the people they are there to assist. The captain was accompanied by a translator, but his struggle to convey nuance and tone are evident as the camera pans over the impassive faces of the elders. In a separate scene, villagers approach the outpost seeking compensation for a cow that became entangled in the surrounding barbed wire and had to be shot. Negotiations proceed through a translator and do not conclude in a resolution. How important was the failure to make a deal? No one can say.
In the fall of 2007, the platoon undertook a hazardous mission dubbed “Operation Rock Avalanche”, which involved reconnoitering previously unexplored areas of the Korengal. The journalists accompanied them, and the events of Rock Avalanche serve as a dramatic “third act” to Restrepo. It was a costly operation that took heavy casualties. Presumably because the journalists were unarmed, they were not present for the worst of the fire fights, but they captured some of the aftermath. In real life, sorrow and anguish are often more understated than in the movies, but there is something about seeing the broken body of a real American soldier on the ground, while his comrades fight back tears, that makes for almost unbearable viewing.
The footage from the Korengal is intercut with interviews conducted in Italy with Capt. Kearney and members of the platoon in 2008, after their deployment ended. The captain and his soldiers comment on aspects of their experience, narrate some of the episodes captured in the footage, and talk about how their experiences in the Korengal continue to affect them. These are distinct individuals with different personalities and styles of expression, but a common element runs through all these interviews that, at first, I could not identify. But it finally hit me: No matter how emotional or intense these soldiers become, not one of them is trying to sell you on anything.
Partisanship of one sort or another has become such a routine element in any discussion of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars that its absence is as noteworthy as complete silence. Over here, everyone who talks about these wars has a position (pro or anti or somewhere in the middle), as well as an objective, whether it’s to win an election, sell a book, bolster ratings, increase views on a website or simply feel “patriotic”. The soldiers who address the camera in Restrepo have no such goals. They’re not trying to convince anyone of anything. They have jobs to do and and a shared sense of obligation to each other, and that’s all. Something about that common attitude lends an authority and a simple eloquence to each and every one of the film’s speakers. Listen, for example, to Specialist Kyle Steiner as he discusses a notion that is commonly thrown around whenever the discussion turns to “supporting the troops”:
When Hetherington and Junger say in Restrepo’s mission statement that “This is reality” , obviously they’re referring to the film’s detailed record of life “on the ground” in Afghanistan. But they’re also referring to the directness with which the soldiers who have to operate the basic nuts-and-bolts machinery of high-level policymaking approach their task. These men have acquired a laser-like clarity that burns away bluster, spin and rhetoric. Years from now, historians will consult Restrepo as essential source material for how the war in Afganistan was actually fought. But it would be a service to men and women like Specialist Steiner if it didn’t take that long for citizens at home to learn about what soldiers are dealing with “over there”.
A final note: In April 2010, the U.S. military abandoned its position in the Korengal Valley.
The image on the Blu-ray varies according to the source material. Some of it was obviously shot on hi-def video, and the advantages are most apparent in shots that reveal the scale of the forbidding landscape. The detail in many of these shots is impressive, considering the circumstances under which they were taken. Other shots at night or in combat conditions are grainy and blurry, as one might expect. Many appear to be from standard definition sources, especially footage that was shot by members of the platoon. Colors are sufficiently well-defined that one can observe the bright shades that Afghan village elders dye their beards, according to local custom.
I was not able to determine how the audio was initially recorded, but it is presented here in Dolby Digital at bitrates comparable to what one would find on DVD. The track is certainly serviceable and intelligible, which is what is required for documentary where the audio is a record of events as they happened, as opposed to a soundtrack constructed in a recording studio. Gunfire ranges from very loud, in enclosed spaces, to hollow and distant, when firing occurs outdoors. Explosions can be extremely loud, when they occur close to the recording equipment. Voices are clear, and English subtitles are available, if needed.
Deleted Scenes (HD) (20:25). Given the fact that Hetherington and Junger spent a year with the platoon, the finished film represents only a fraction of the available footage. These scenes appear to have been selected because they are interesting in their own right, but had no obvious place where they could fit into the finished film. Examples are a ceremony awarding medals; a supply drop from helicopter; and a scene of soldiers checking the hands of locals for residue from gun powder or explosives.
Extended Interviews (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (26:13). Additional interviews from the post-deployment sessions in Italy containing reflections on a wide variety of topics.
Sleeping Soldiers (SD; 4:3) (4:36). This is a montage of platoon members sleeping, with combat footage superimposed.
Update on the Soldiers. The updates were written by the soldiers themselves and are presented as text. Many have redeployed to Afghanistan.
PSAs. Three public service announcements are included, all in standard definition: Operation Home Front (1.78:1, enhanced) (2:12); Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or “IAVA” (1.78:1, non-enhanced) (1:03); and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or “TAPS” (4:3) (8:36).
Trailers. Trailers are included for Amreeka (SD; 2.35:1, enhanced); The Way We Get By (SD; 1.78:1, non-enhanced); The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest (HD, 1:78:1); and The Way Back (HD; 1.78:1).
Life provided a fitting coda to the film. On November 16, 2010, Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta of the 173rd Airborne became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War for actions performed during Operation Rock Avalanche. Guinta does not appear in the film, because he was not stationed at O.P. Restrepo, but Junger and Hetherington made a short follow-up film, “The Sal Guinta Story”, which is posted at the Restrepo website.
The relevant portion of the Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub