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'Restrepo' offers a soldier's-eye view of Afghan war

Published September 2, 2010 11:48 pm

Review • Gritty documentary footage puts you up close to the action with the soldiers of the Battle Company.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

No movie about war has provoked such a visceral impact as the opening moments of "Restrepo": Sitting in the back of a Humvee, the cameraman is capturing the faces of the fighting men around him — when an IED goes off outside the vehicle.

What follows is noise and confusion, with people yelling and shooting their weapons as dust and dirt kick up in the camera's lens. It's the fog of war, in real time.

That's what "Restrepo," which won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is like for most of its 93 minutes: war, up close and all too personal.

What you see in "Restrepo" is a soldier's view of war, as raw and as immediate as a punch in the face. It's what you don't see that's troubling.

"Restrepo" follows the men of B (for Battle) Company, 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, as they try to maintain a forward outpost in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. This area was the site of some of the nastiest and most constant combat in Afghanistan while the movie was being filmed in 2007 and 2008. (In fact, the outpost was named Restrepo in honor of a medic who was killed in action.)

The makers of "Restrepo," author Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, spent more than a year, off and on, in the trenches with Battle Company. They capture astounding footage of raw combat, along with scenes of soldiers trying to broker peace and cooperation from the Afghani locals. There are a few, all too infrequent, looks at the soldiers' downtime. But in an area that saw enemy fire nearly every day, there was little time for relaxing.

The film also features thoughtful interviews with the men of Battle Company, conducted after their return from Afghanistan. Their plain-spoken commentary about their duties and the friends they lost in war is heartbreaking in its directness.

What the filmmakers don't include in "Restrepo" is any sort of context for what the soldiers are facing. There are no interviews with generals or politicians about the strategic or global value of having an outpost in the Korengal Valley (a mission abandoned in April, when the U.S. military closed the outpost) or of fighting in Afghanistan at all.

Ignoring the debate is not the same as conceding the debate, though. If the only message you get out of "Restrepo" is that war is all hell, as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman so famously said, then the documentary has done its job.

But if a viewer equates being pro-soldier with being pro-war, then the point of this movie has been missed.

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Restrepo

A grimly detailed documentary about the perils of war, shown in excruciating close-up.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens today.

Rating • R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence

Running time • 93 minutes.