The war documentary, and directorial debut of both Tim Hetherington (The Devil Came on Horseback) and Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm); Restrepo; comprises of the intimate footage the pair shot whilst they were embedded with a single platoon, of the U.S. Army, based in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan; a place which was dubbed by CNN as “the deadliest place on Earth.
It becomes abundantly clear when watching Restrepo, exactly how the Korengal got its fearsome reputation; as the men stationed there were subjected to a guarantee that they would come under fire at least once a day (often more than that), every single day they stayed in the Korengal, and that they would have to sleep in the dirt, face an often unseeable enemy who was far more knowledgable about the terrain in which they were fighting than they were, and that they would be losing friends, sleeping in the dirt, and having to burn their own feces, just to survive.
And Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s documentary manages to capture all of the pain, misery, and fear that these soldiers went through while being subjected to such horrible conditions, with surprising clarity, closeness, and a degree of openness not often granted to film crews.
It’s the openness of the soldiers involved that often makes Restrepo so compelling, because the film is named after an outpost in the Korengal; and the man whom that outpost was named after (a young doctor who was shot and killed not long after being deployed in the valley, and shortly before the outpost was erected); and throughout the film the soldiers discuss what Doc Restrepo was like when he was alive, paint murals to him, remember the good times, and hold a small memorial to both him, and the other comrades they have lost along the way, with such a level of clear, and unashamed emotion, that soldiers rarely show, especially on screen.
The emotions of the soldiers are also conveyed through a series of post-deployment interviews with the surviving members of the platoon, that are intercut with the footage from Afghanistan, and provide an interesting perspective into what’s happening on screen; showing exactly what the men were feeling and thinking at that time, and how vividly they remember certain events; as they clearly become emotional when discussing their experiences, and even have to pause and take a break on occasion.
Both Hetherington and Junger have been war correspondents in the past, and they clearly know what they are doing; as not only do they manage to convince the men to be more open than most soldiers ever are in there entire lives (not only admitting fear for their lives, suicidal tendencies, and sorrow for dead friends, but discussing the ‘high’ they get from killing an enemy combatant), but they captured some truly amazing footage that not only consists of joking in the mess hall, writing letters home, and dancing in a bunker, but going on patrol, taking fire, and even the reactions of soldiers who find out (whilst taking fire) that their commander, and friend, has been killed, and instantly break down, becoming overrun with shock, fear, and grief.
And that’s basically what Restrepo is; a raw and brutal documentary that showcases the daily hardships, and emotional strain, that the men of a single platoon (who were placed in the most dangerous place on the planet, for more than a year) had to undergo, and not only shows exactly what life was like for them, but the lasting effect it had on the men, through some truly excellently captured footage and post-deployment interviews (which often prove to be the most compelling sections of the film).
Restrepo comes with no political agenda attached; as the motives for war, and its legitimacy are completely irrelevant to the tale of these soldiers, and are not important for viewers in any way; because when watching, it’s clear that these men don’t want to be there, are hurting for the loss of their friends, and their innocence (they admit that they weren’t ready going in, and had no clue what to expect); but its story is a powerful one that cannot be ignored, as it provides a deeper understanding of what modern soldiers actually go through, and is not only solid viewing for war aficionados, those people with a passing interest in current affairs, and anybody studying war, but should be essential viewing for everyone.
Given the circumstances of filming, hoping to glimpse a pristine transfer would have been a wholly unrealistic expectation; as not only is the camera shaky, and the low-lit interior scenes often coming with their fair share of problems, but there’s a substantial amount of grain cloaking much of the footage.
Having said that, the post-deployment interviews look superb; excellently showing the detail on the soldiers faces, and the fear in their eyes, as they recall the horrors of their time served; and most of the footage shot in and around O.P. Restrepo looks pretty solid, given the circumstances.
So while the quality maybe sketchy in places, the majority of the footage looks quite good and really, Restrepo isn’t the type of film you buy for a picture-perfect image; what’s here is clearly watchable, and more than acceptable, but it’s there to give a true depiction of what soldiers in the Korengal went through (which it clearly does), not simply provide impressive visuals.
Similarly to the video, the sound quality is less than perfect, and listening to the Restrepo soundtrack isn’t going to provide anyone with the same kind of wow-factor as a big-budget war movie, or impeccably produced TV series (such as The Pacific), mainly because everything that was shot was done so on on the fly; and because it was real, and captured in the moment, impressive microphones, booms, and the like, could not be used; however the sounds that have been captured hold up very well.
Certain things were obviously going to become muffled, and be difficult to understand (be that because of varying accents, or a poor ability to pick up radio transmissions, etc), but the audio is presented via a beefed up Dolby Digital 5.1 track, or a two-channel track (which is most likely the original mix), that both convey all the appropriate conversations, gunshots, explosions, and guitar notes, with a level of accuracy that is impressive for this type of filmmaking, and shouldn’t disappoint anyone.
Unlike many documentary films of this category, Restrepo delivers a fairly substantial number of special features which are themselves as worthy a watch the the main film; beginning with a selection of deleted scenes (which show everything from the men laughing and joking, to dancing, having rock fights, testing the locals for gunshot residue, and coming across a wounded Afghan boy), and continuing with the trailer, and a series of further interview clips with the soldiers (discussing everything from bravery, relationships, and PTSD, to isolation, the army, and hearts and minds) being so open and honest that they make for an exceptionally interesting, and engrossing, watch.
There’s also a ‘Where Are They Now?’ feature; which consists solely of textual information, and candid family photos, describing what a number of the surviving platoon members have done, and plan to do, since they left the infamous valley; and it’s a feature that’s worth checking out, solely to see how many of the men returned to Afghanistan, or ended up in Iraq, despite clearly loathing their time in the Korengal.
So while it may not sound like the most exhaustive list of bonus materials ever constructed (consisting of a trailer, some deleted scenes, and extra interview snippets), the special features included on the Restrepo DVD are all extremely worthwhile inclusions, utterly compelling viewing, and just as essential viewing as the film itself.
The Bottom Line:
Restrepo is one of the most well presented, hard hitting, documentaries ever released; and presents a raw glimpse into the heart of modern warfare, by examining the trails and tribulations of men on the front line in the most dangerous place on Earth; sparing nothing, and placing every hardship, viewpoint, and piece of heartache out there for everyone to see.
The picture and audio quality may not be up to the standards of The Pacific, or The Karate Kid (2010), but serve more than well enough to bring the story of these few men home, and are actually very solid for filmmaking of this style; just as the special features, which may not be numerous, but are supremely worthwhile inclusions, and every bit as worthy of the label ‘essential viewing’ as the film itself.
Restrepo truly is essential viewing, because not only should everyone know more about what the modern solider has to go through, but because it’s utterly compelling, completely engrossing, and a brutal example of everything a documentary should be; honest, open, and nothing if not hard hitting; Restrepo is war, complete with all the fear, tension, adrenaline, and emotion that goes with it; watching Restrepo is actually like watching The Hurt Locker but more affecting because it’s real, and as Mike Scotti (the ex-Marine whose own Iraq footage has been released as the This is War documentary) said in a recent interview, “Restrepo’s fuckin’ great.”