Special to The History Place
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 America's Afghan War. A Death in Belmont came next. A combination childhood memoir and murder mystery, the book recounts the Junger family's proximity to the Boston Strangler killings and speculates on whether Albert DeSalvo was 'who done it.'
With 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 grunt’s 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, it's the best writing I've seen on the subject since J. Glenn Gray's 1959 classic, 'The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.' "
Caputo might also have mentioned War Historian John Keegan’s 1976 The Face of Battle, another Yeoman’s effort at putting our imaginations alongside the boots on the ground. 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 to the plate late in the game. Tim Hetherington, Junger’s 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, "It's 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, in my view, is both the strength and the weakness of the 93-minute film. On one hand, you are indeed 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.
But, at the same time, 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 he's tried four or five different sleeping pills and he still can't sleep. He adds that, actually, he no longer wants to sleep, because he relives the bad parts in his 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 we've endured, the CO says that happened on his predecessor's 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 film's 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 can't be done out loud, risk-free, in a public forum – as General Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way following his disastrous interview with Rolling Stone. All the same, McChrystal’s self-destruction may not have been a useless gesture. His doubts about the war's 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 Caputo’s Vietnam, as he noted in his review of War, seem more and more compelling. Was Restrepo the Outpost another Hamburger Hill? If so, shouldn't Restrepo the Film explore that overarching issue, even if, as in McChrystal’s interview, the line between military and civilian roles is crossed?
The Hurt Locker, 2009’s Best Picture, which I also reviewed for The History Place, presents its director's point of view. When the protagonist finds it impossible to reintegrate into his former home life and returns instead to the war in Iraq, we get the message. 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 America's Afghan incursion.
Bottom line, I’d like to make three points.
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 can’t 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. In the whole of my hometown of Philadelphia, I was able to find it playing in only one downtown art house. I doubt it will be around for long. (However Netflix promises that it will be available soon, in case you can't find it in a theater near you.)
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. Visit his Webpage.