Sebastian Junger hit the big time 13 years ago with The Perfect Storm, a non-fiction best-seller that morphed into a major motion picture starring no less a celestial light than George Clooney. Some reviewers dubbed Junger the new Hemingway. But since then, his output at least on the bookshelves has been modest. Fire was a collection of magazine articles, notably including a few on Americas Afghan War. A Death in Belmont came next. A combination childhood memoir and murder mystery, the book recounts the Junger familys proximity to the Boston Strangler killings and speculates on whether Albert DeSalvo was who done it.
With the film Restrepo and a new book entitled War, Junger raises his Afghan reporting for Vanity Fair from journalism to art. Reviewing War for the Washington Post back in May, Philip Caputo, whose 1977 A Rumor of War captured the grunts reality in Vietnam, wrote: He thus becomes a kind of 21st-century battle singer, narrating the deeds and misdeeds of his heroes while explaining what makes them do what they do. These reflections, drawing on his wide-ranging research into military history, biology and psychology as well as on his personal experiences, overreach once or twice. Otherwise, its the best writing Ive seen on the subject since J. Glenn Grays 1959 classic, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.
But what now distinguishes Junger from all of these predecessors is Restrepo. Virtually a companion piece to War, the film was reportedly self-financed by Junger, until National Geographic stepped up late in the game. Tim Hetherington, Jungers photographer on the Vanity Fair pieces, shares credit as co-director. The title derives from the outpost in the viciously contested Korengal Valley, where the two journalists/filmmakers were embedded. The base was named after a combat medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who had been killed in action. As Junger told news media enroute to winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival, Its a completely apolitical film. We wanted to give viewers the experience of being in combat with soldiers, and so our cameras never leave their side. There are no interviews with generals; there is no moral or political analysis. It is a purely experiential film.
This is both the strength and the weakness of the 93-minute film. You are there. Restrepo includes some great battle footage. Its directors obviously took some serious chances to take us into the fray. The downtime scenes also are instructive. One gets the sense that these soldiers who, after all, did volunteer for this experience sometimes missed the action, when the boredom of garrison life took hold.
These men cannot escape the horrors of war. The interviews with individual soldiers, that intersperse the film, are very revealing. For instance, one enlisted man confides that hes tried four or five different sleeping pills and he still cant sleep. He adds that, actually, he no longer wants to sleep, because he relives the bad parts in dreams.
We also see scenes in which the CO meets with village elders, assuring them that, if the Taliban are subdued, a road will be built. With it will come newfound prosperity. When the elders ask, what about the civilian dead weve endured, the CO says that happened on his predecessors watch and they need to get past it.
No narration accompanies these powerful words and images. No experts no talking heads help us make sense of what we are seeing and hearing. This to some degree is also the films greatest weakness. Junger, in an interview, indicated that the soldiers seldom discussed policy. Granting that in a republic such as ours, this role falls to our elected civilian leaders, still some reflection on the meaning of it all would seem to be healthy.
Of course, this soldierly contemplation cant be done out loud, risk-free, in a public forum as Gen. Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way following his disastrous interview with Rolling Stone. All the same, McChrystals self-destruction may not have been a useless gesture. His doubts about the wars prospects are informative, and therefore valuable. Restrepo gives us a look at the adrenalin rush of combat, the occasional flashes of bloodlust that presumably accompany any military campaign, and the intense bonding and camaraderie of camp life.
But do the soldiers care should they care about the apparent futility of the 50 lives lost in taking and holding Restrepo? The outpost has since been abandoned. The promised road has never been built. The parallels to Caputos Vietnam, as he noted in his review of War, seem more and more compelling. Was Restrepo, the Outpost, another Hamburger Hill? If so, shouldnt Restrepo, the Film, explore that overarching issue, even if, as in McChrystals interview, the line between military and civilian roles is crossed?
Junger and Hetherington deliberately try to avoid interjecting a point of view. I wonder if they have been a bit too hands-off here, given that their film stands almost alone as a cinematic voice in the crucial national debate about the future of Americas Afghan incursion.
One. For a taste of what the war in Afghanistan is like for the American combat troops, who experience it every day of their tours, this film cant be beaten. We owe the filmmakers a debt of gratitude for risking their necks to take us there.
Two. If you want some help in making sense of what you will see on the screen, you should read War, either before or after you see the film. The book makes up for the deficiencies of the film that I have suggested in this review.
Three. If you want to see Restrepo on a big screen, you had better act quickly if it comes to your town. In the whole of my hometown of Philadelphia, shortly after its release, I was able to find it playing in only one downtown art house. (However Netflix promises that it will be available soon.)
Rated R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.
Jim Castagnera is the author of Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010). He is a Philadelphia lawyer and journalist. This appeared at historyplace.com.
From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010
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