Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The meat locker

An acclaimed journalist shows, not tells, a year in Afghanistan

Posted on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Rated: R
Director: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
WorkNameSort: Restrepo
Our Rating: 4.00

At first I felt a tinge of guilt watching the opening of Restrepo, a down-in-the-hole documentary that follows a company of U.S. soldiers over the course of a yearlong deployment to one of the deadliest places on Earth. 'What am I doing thinking about Iron Man,' I wonder as I witness real soldiers chumming around and talking smack before their tank is toppled by an RPG ' a dead-on re-creation of Tony Stark's 2008 introduction to the movie world. But then you get to know these guys and their war, and it doesn't seem like such a sheltered thought. 

One of the great charms of Restrepo and its co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's ' and what sets the movie apart from many other peeks into a war that seems so distant ' is that it humanizes, and more specifically Americanizes, these dreadfully young combatants. It's not a stretch to think that someone in the troop must have flashed briefly to Iron Man at some point during the incident after you've seen them lift weights to the tunes of radio-metal band Disturbed or frolic jokingly to Samantha Fox's 'Touch Me (I Want Your Body) or paint a 300-style Spartan helmet on the side of their makeshift fort. These are creatures of American pop culture as much as any guy in his early 20s, and as devastating a reminder of the cost of war as any fatality suffered by the company. And there are fatalities. 

Ever since the riveting account of the doomed Andrea Gail fishing boat in his non-fiction book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, Junger has become famous for his into-the-fire journalistic style, but in his transformation into a war videographer of sorts, the writer has taken on the documentarian role with passion and gusto, placing the audience directly in the line of fire ' a vantage point that permits us insights that the guys pulling the trigger have no time for. It allows us to understand that the war in Afghanistan is not only abstract and detached to us at home, but to its fighters as well. 'I wish I could see who I was shooting at,� says one soldier whom we see clearly fire round after round into the impenetrable woods of the Korengal Valley. He gets his confirmation of the kill from another soldier mounted behind what must be some kind of super-scope device but looks more like something you'd see in an optometrist's office. Massive explosions surround them constantly, the clack-clack of machine gun fire as perpetual as a woodpecker, but unless it's just loud enough to be close, to them it's just how the valley sounds. 

What I admired most about this film, already chock full of admirable traits, is its physicality. In a war with little hand-to-hand (or even face-to-face) combat, it's the relative safety of the fort that brings out the animal in the fighters. They grapple, play music and cook for each other with as much intensity and pride as when they march up mountains. When one of their own becomes a casualty, they mourn with shocking rawness, even while taking fire. They remain above all else human, and Restrepo ' named after the company's outlook post which they named after a 20-year-old casualty who begins the film with so much life ' never lets us forget that. 


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