I’m a little slow on the uptake and finally got around to watching Restrepo. I’d seen Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the filmmakers, on The Daily Show and heard some buzz about it when it won at Sundance, but I’ve always had an irrational disdain for Sebastian Junger (not an uncommon response from me) and never bothered to see it until yesterday. Which is unfortunate, because it is an amazing piece of filmmaking.
The story of how the film was made is extraordinary enough, but I wasn’t expecting the resulting film to have so much sensitivity, candor and even humor to go with the horror. Even how the film got its name is emotional and sad and truly gives light to what these very young men lived day in and day out for 15 months. It’s not an advocacy film and has no political motives. It just unfolds the way life in war unfolds for the soldiers, in this case the soldiers of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade while they were stationed in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
But what elevates the film and anchors its humanity are the studio interviews with several soldiers not long after their tour ended. Three in particular had personal stories that deeply affected me. First was the sweet son of a “fucking hippie” (his words) Misha Pemble-Belkin, who grew up doing crafty projects but not eating sugar until he was 13 or ever playing with guns, because his parents didn’t believe in violent toys. He is fully aware of the irony of him enlisting. On the seeming other end of the spectrum is Aron Hijar, a handsome, Latino “tough guy” who is literally rendered speechless and overwhelmed while recounting a story. And finally, somewhere in the middle, is Miguel Cortez. A polite and soft-spoken young man whose lovely smile belies his sorrow and the long road ahead of him as he processes the experience.
If we truly “support the troops” and want to see them return home and thrive, we really should make Restrepo required viewing, because no film has managed to document so fully the experience of a soldier. It allows us to “walk a mile in their shoes” from the comfort of our own homes and truly, albeit briefly, understand them. And not just to experience the horrors of war, but also the boredom, humor and oftentimes sheer bizarre mechanisms people devise to survive extreme situations. Or as Tim Hetherington said:
What was infinitely more interesting and revealing was how the soldiers carried on in these situations. People who haven’t experienced war inevitably base their understanding of it [on] the mediated versions of news or Hollywood. These representations are often limited and can’t quite reveal the humor, boredom, and confusion inherent in combat.
It’s an extraordinary movie about ordinary young men tasked with performing extraordinary acts of bravery and even, to be honest, lunacy. And while I’m sure documentaries about the scumbags of Wall Street or a street artist whose greatest talent is self promotion have their merits I can’t fathom that any documentary released in recent years has the depth of basic human emotions of Restrepo.