Rating: ★★★★½

As a war film, ‘Restrepo‘ immediately has two big things going for it. Firstly, in an area filled stories set in Iraq it takes a look at the difficulties faced by the very different conflict taking place in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. It’s a totally different world, and one in which the fighting is more often with hardened warriors than disillusioned civilians cajoled into covert ops.

Secondly, where other films about the war on terror have gone for espionage thrills (‘Body of Lies’, ‘Traitor’) or taut suspense (‘The Hurt Locker’) to convey the experience of war, ‘Restrepo’ directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger decided to bypass the artifices of fiction altogether and film their experiences during the year in which they were dug in to the front line in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal valley with an American platoon.

So many films seek to convey political meaning in their story or, possibly worse still, simply dramatise the horror of war into a neat package for audiences to enjoy. It is therefore incredibly reassuring that a pair of documentary filmmakers would seek only to report on the reality of war, without judgement or political motive.

And make no mistake, everything about the way this film is shot, edited and packaged scream about a desire to show the war how it is.

The narrative, as far as there can be said to be a clear one, centres on the experiences of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in which directors Hetherington and Junger were embedded during their deployment. This begins with the unexpected death of Private First Class Juan S. Restrepo, the setting up of a strategically significant outpost that would be named after their fallen comrade, and their experiences manning the outpost and trying to engage with the local population: both as part of the ‘hearts and minds’ strategy and in combat.

© Tim Hetherington

The documentary footage is interspersed with interview footage of some of the surviving company members during their sojourn from combat, spent in Italy. These interviews provide much-needed emotional insight, and allow us to pause for reflection during the many important moments of their deployment. It puts things in perspective and adds another dimension to the soldiers, reminding us of their existence outside of a military context, and reminding us of how difficult a normal existence is after having experienced life in the Korengal.

But these interviews are certainly second fiddle to the raw intensity of the first-hand footage taken during that year in the Korengal. From fierce fire fights to playful moments of camaraderie, from frustrating shuras (meetings) with the local elders that yield little in the way of concrete results, to the deaths of innocent civilians in air-to-surface missile attacks ‘Restrepo’ never shies away from the reality of war.

The journalistic integrity of the filmmakers is evidenced in the candour of the soldiers in many scenes, whether they are crying uncontrollably after a comrade falls or expressing their rage at the enemies that lurk in the valley beneath their lonely outposts, there is never any sign of creative editing to keep the story on-message, or to manufacture a morality tale in favour of or against the deployment of these troops, simply a clear desire to put audiences directly in touch with these real, living men who are willing to die for their job, their country, their beliefs and one another.

Like ‘Waltz With Bashir’ before it, ‘Restrepo’ is one of those rare war films that has the power to put audiences in touch with deeper meaning: outside of the artifice, outside of the politicking and, in this instance, directly inside the war zone itself.

‘Restrepo is released in the U.K. today’.

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This article was first posted on October 8, 2010