Riveting, harrowing doc shows the war we ignore

Without a civilian draft, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become low-rated television shows that perpetually defy the threat of cancellation. And while there is no shortage of documentaries about our struggles in the Middle East, filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger offer an urgent and harrowing insider's view of what U.S. soldiers endure seven years after George Bush Jr. hung up his "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Intimately embedding the viewer with U.S. troops, Restrepo drops you into a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan's hellishly remote Korangal Valley, a craggy mountain basin that is home to violent Taliban guerrillas. Holed up in a outpost named after O.P. Restrepo, a wise-cracking 20-year-old medic who was killed early on, the platoon is assigned the Sisyphean task of hunting the enemy, negotiating with the locals, and praying that they won't be shot in their sleep. As one soldier describes it, they live "like fish in a barrel."

With occasional talking head confessionals sprinkled throughout the film, Restrepo mostly relies on shaky handheld and helmet-cam footage to create a compelling 90-minute exercise in fly-on-the-wall photojournalism. The effect is both visceral and immediate, rendering Hollywood's fictional depictions of war both trite and superficial. Context, goals and politics take a back seat to the soldiers' daily grind as we experience the fast camaraderie, shockingly abrupt battles and cultural challenges these brave young men navigate day in and day out.

And they are a far cry from the gung-ho cowboys, macho heroes and colorful neurotics who fill Hollywood war films. Bright, professional and compassionate, these are not the ennobled warriors of cinema and political punditry, undergoing a celebrated trial of masculine identity. They are ordinary guys struggling to suppress their fears and cynicism as they do their job. Yes, they find opportunities to thump their chests and engage in male-bonding rituals but mostly they just slog through the unexpected terrors and inevitable boredom of their missions. 

Since Hetherington and Junger's doc has no political or personal ax to grind, their film remains defiantly neutral when considering the experiences of these young men. Where The Hurt Locker's day-in-the-life approach ultimately glorified war as a brutally ironic rite of passage, Restrepo debunks the American mythology of combat by showing it in all its sudden and banal messiness. As a result, the film is moving without being sentimental and boots-on-the-ground suspenseful without being melodramatic or exploitative.

Restrepo also avoids the implied platitudes of class distinction that all too often plague wartime cinema. Its one-on-one interviews help us know the individual soldiers better without caricature or cliché. Some are eloquent, others are tongue-tied as they try to express their frustrations, learned wisdom, grief and pride. Their awkward pauses and inward stares often reveal more than their words. From the boy-faced soldier whose "hippie mom" wouldn't let him play with guns to the guys who admit that they get an adrenaline rush during combat, all are fascinatingly real.

Still, as close as the film allows us to come, there is no way we can actually share in these soldiers' experiences. When a trooper suddenly collapses in tears at the sight of his just-killed friend, you can't help but feel like an unwelcome tourist. And it's this scene that underlines the fundamental challenge Hetherington and Junger's unbiased cinéma-vérité faces. A troubling sense of futility hangs over their film — not only for the ill-defined mission that consumes these young men's lives but because of the American public's profound indifference to their efforts. No matter how noble their cause, our country simply doesn't care enough to watch.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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