Thursday, 27 March 2014

Restrepo (2010)

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington follow the 503rd's Second Battalion B Company into hell and showcase the horrors and realities of war for America in the 21st century.

The two film-makers were embedded with B Company on their fifteen month deployment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, at the time dubbed "the deadliest place on Earth". Within minutes of opening, the soldiers make their first contact: an IED and gunfire rain down upon them in the first instalment of what would become, literally, a daily occurrence. US soldiers in the area were coming under fire every single day of their deployment and it was the goal of this deployment to push further into the valley and establish new outposts in lieu of a new highway being built in the future. The major outpost that they built was named in honour of one of first men they lost Private First Class Juan Restrepo.

Restrepo is cinéma vérité in its truest form. There is no narration and only a handful of notes appear on screen, and usually only to give location and time information. A few post-deployment interviews with the soldiers themselves are all that break up the in-the-field action coming straight from the battlefield. It's just the soldiers, their job and the camera.

The observational approach lends itself to the a-political nature of the job. "The War in Afghanistan" is just a something that appears on the news once or twice a week to most of us. It's something that happens over there, off screen and something we never truly see. It's all politics and words and seemingly never ending fighting. It's a world away from what actually happens. In Restrepo you just have what's in front of you and that's what's in front of the soldiers fighting this war.

What's in front of these soldiers is an arid and unforgiving valley filled with an enemy that can't be seen until he's already attacked and locals who are just doing whatever they can to not to be killed by either side. The job of this deployment is one part of a seemingly unwinnable war and these men get to work anyway. The admiration for the men featured grows as the film goes on. The hardships they endure are incredible: constant fear of attack, the uncertainty of every single day and the nagging thought that even the most capable soldier can and will risk death every day. Death is unavoidable here but B Company gets to work regardless.

The futility of some of their efforts becomes apparent at a few points throughout the film. Locals lie to them. Men are lost. Nothing new gets built. Innocent people get caught in the crossfire. They all talk of the hard work they do being necessary, and then it all being undone once the film is over and we're still waiting on the Korengal to be safe four years after the deployment rapped up.

Restrepo is an uncompromising and authentic look at what it means to be in a modern war. The politics aside, it allows an insight into what those men who stand willing to do violence in the night to protect those of us who won't. Soldiers don't join the military to protect political interests, or to dismantle governments that theirs doesn't agree with or win oilfields or whatever reasons these wars start. They join to protect the people they love and those who need protecting. You can hate the military all you like, but films like Restrepo remind us that all soldiers deserve love for their service.

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