Oh, the humanity. Restrepo, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary, is a documentary focusing on a battalion of U.S. combat soldiers stationed in the Korengal valley of Afghanistan in the summer of 2007. There is no criticism or political angle here. This is in no way an anti-war film, nor is it pushing any other sort of agenda. It is simply a wrenching tale of bravery, fear, camaraderie and sacrifice; sacrifice by the soldiers doing their duty, and more indirectly, the sacrifice of a nation sending its young men off to fight in its name. Restrepo explores the human side of war in a way that truly honors the men deployed to Afghanistan’s most dangerous military outpost, and hopefully, changes audiences’ perception of war forever. Read more about this powerful film after the jump…
The film opens with the excited, almost joyous deployment of the U.S. Army Battle Company, 173rd 2/503, Airborne Infantry on their way to the Korengal Outpost. Having been warned by peers that they are headed to the most deadly station in the country, the men are confident in each other’s abilities, perhaps to the point of arrogance. However, almost immediately upon arrival, the soldiers begin taking fire. This is an extremely hostile territory, with several attacks occurring daily. Before long, the battalion takes casualties, one of whom is PFC Juan “Doc” Retrespo, a soldier beloved to the rest of the men for combat skills, good humor, and sensitivity. As they advance their position and establish a new outpost a mere 800 meters from the main Korengal Outpost, they deem it Outpost Retrespo in his honor. Though the outpost is barely a kilometer away from the main camp, as far as support goes, it may as well be on the other side of the world. The troops persevere, patrolling the area, investigating Taliban threats, and attempting to endear themselves to the locals.
The film also focuses on a particular mission, dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche, during which the men fall under heavy fire and take more casualties than any other mission of their campaign in the region. As they approach the end of their deployment, the men remain resolute, but the war has clearly taken its toll on them all. The prospect of leaving Korengal — not even returning home, but simply being shipped out anywhere else, becomes the motivating factor moving them on.
Retrespo is possibly the most emotionally harrowing experience of the entire Sundance festival. Embedded throughout the run of the soldiers’ time in Afghanistan, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherton courageously keep the cameras rolling throughout the firefights, putting the audience directly in the heart of the battle. Surveying the scene, these shots capture everything from tactical orders and battle cries to the puffs of dust as bullets strike the ground at the soldiers’ feet. There is no doubt about precisely how near the danger is. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this is when explosions blow out the microphone, and the fighting takes place in stark silence, leaving viewers feeling as if they’ve just gone into shock.
When the bullets aren’t flying, the footage of the soldiers on their down time shows a group of men who all care deeply for each other and value the rare moments of peace. However, in spite of a great deal of playful roughhousing and razzing or stone faced pontification, it is impossible to completely hide the fear just below the surface of these men’s stoic facades. The film is almost entirely without music, except for a small handful scenes in which one private plays up-tempo yet mournful songs on the guitar that survives PFC Retrespo. He shows marked improvement as the film goes on, and his dedication to the instrument seems to be a tribute to the memory of his fallen brother.
In addition to the time the camera spends with the soldiers on the ground, there is also a great deal of interview footage, taken well after the events of the film’s subject, allowing them ample time for reflection. The lingering heartbreak at the loss of their friends seems to have placed a distinct sadness in their eyes, which will never leave them. Yet one of the soldiers poignantly observes, “I don’t want to not have these memories, because they’re the moments that make me appreciate all that I have.”
Once again, this film does not push a political agenda. However, that does not mean that it won’t leave one with a certain sense of outrage. Perhaps it’s because of confidential military reasons, but it is never clearly explained exactly what strategic value the Korengal valley holds. But in spite of advancing their position and honoring the death of their fallen friends by erecting this outpost, at the end of the film there isn’t a strong sense of accomplishment. That is certainly not intended to diminish the value of what they managed to do, yet when weighing the sheer trauma that these men suffered against the seemingly meager success of their mission, one is left with very conflicting emotions.