Under Review: ‘Restrepo’


This film is a Rorschach test that reports what your heart truly feels about the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Outraged, appalled, sickened and disgusted. That’s what I felt after viewing “Restrepo.” Is that how I also really feel about the war?

This is what I saw: a neglected arid undeveloped mountainous region with tipsy-looking stone structures reminiscent of a primitive time; tremendously unattractive bony elders who dye their beards a sharp magenta red; no roads, just paths; no evidence of infrastructure. Does anybody care about health care, education, plumbing or electricity?

The 15-man U.S. Army platoon, occupying this region from May 2007 to July 2008, is comprised of nervous yet cocky obviously well-fed boys and a captain who, in the beginning, is sure he’ll just “take out” anyone who threatens his men. It’s just that simple.

Their shelter is a rustic sandbag fort and their entertainment includes wrestling, sit-ups, macho pretensions and sarcasm. Their base is a two-hour hike from a helicopter landing zone. It’s hot, it’s cold, and there are too many flies. They have no running water and on some days they are attacked three to four times.

This base is soon named after a medic, PFC Juan Restrepo, whom they lose to incoming. This becomes a metaphor for the loss they will all experience. They grow increasingly nervous and restless.

The captain was educated for deployment in Iraq, but in the last moments his orders were changed to occupy one of the most resistant areas in Afghanistan, the Korengal Valley. Now he has no knowledge of the land, people or language. But would it have mattered?

During a meeting with 20-30 area elders, every single sentence the young platoon leader uttered for translation was colored with some derivation of the F word.

He is a young guy, a leadership problem in this region at the get-go, without cultural sensitivity. It’s impossible for him to be taken seriously or with respect. Just his presence is an insult — but then load on his frustrated temperament, his lack of respect for the elders, and his communication content. This is our US representative to Afghanistan …

I learned absolutely nothing new from this documentary. War is not the answer and this occupation has obvious parallels to our unwinnable, unprincipled foray into Vietnam. The panoramas of the mountains and valleys are drab; there are no sinister dark clouds or other weather phenomena to telegraph a mood or tone. There is no art, there is no education and there is no redemption.

The U.S. troops are cocky, insensitive and justifiably under attack. The only reason we know they are there is because they have orders. It is a desolate, meaningless outpost.

The directors, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, are war zone journalists who were granted U.S. government approval to embed with this platoon of U.S. Army soldiers. They document 10 months of exposure to these men despite a broken leg, a torn Achilles and bullet wounds. They decline to editorialize. They just want to let the video play, picking up the life and events of the men, the time and the locale.

I saw “Restrepo” in a standing room-only venue for the Seattle International Film Festival. I was seated by two Vietnam draft dodgers on my left and a Palestinian from Lebanon on my right.

Despite being shown at a theater in the liberal Capitol Hill area of Seattle, it seemed we were surrounded by southern-belt patriots-at-whatever-the-cost conservatives. The surly- burly crew-cut in front of the Palestinian was shouting at my neighbor, who couldn’t understand him, before the lights ever dimmed.

Granted, Mr. Crew was asking the Palestinian to make sure he didn’t rest his knees on the back of his chair, but the Palestinian couldn’t understand him or why this mattered – and this circumstance ironically paralleled the situation of the boys in “Restrepo.” Language and culture barriers frustrate everyone.

At the end of the screening the directors took questions. Someone in the audience got up and thanked the directors for preparing such a tribute to those courageous soldiers who are there for us and for love of their country. A loud standing ovation followed.

Except not by me. From the Junger-Hetherington published interviews, my own experience with Vietnam vets and my role as a high school teacher watching 18 year olds enlist, I have never heard any of them say they are enlisting out of love for fellow Americans or for our country.

In a previously published interview Hetherington has stated this about the soldiers’ motivations: “Some said they needed to get out of their parents’ home and saw the army as offering them independence, others that they were seeking a rite of passage and new experiences. Many didn’t think they had many options open to them and saw the army as the best opportunity on offer.”

My old high school acquaintances who volunteered for Vietnam have told me they didn’t know what else to do and they wanted the GI Bill. With the job situation like it is today, 40 years later, high school students enlist for similar reasons – because there are few other opportunities and the GI Bill for education still looks like a reasonable bargain.

Don’t ever ever ever tell me these guys enlisted because of love of country.

Referencing the documentary ‘Rethink Afghanistan’ you will note that General Petraeus has reported Al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan, so just in case you think the terrorism card is related to all of this, it’s not.

Reference an article by Rory Stewart (U.K. politician, Dir. of Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, past deputy governor of an Iraqi province and author) on what should be occurring in Afghanistan, and you’ll note that a reduction in military presence is strongly advised as the most constructive way to reduce Afghan insurgency.

Our engagement is misguided and this film just repeats what everyone already knows. We’re in another wormhole of arrogance and misjudgment without a dignified course of action. I give this lousy film a one.

“Oh no!” shout my two 60-year old draft-dodging friends, almost in unison. “It’s either a 4 or 5 (out of 5) for sure! It gives a visceral picture of the terrible situation these poor soldiers are in. It is an important document for the public record of how things really are. It’s great!” says the guy who drops in his 5 to the SIFF ballot box.

My own emotional response to the situation I saw trumped my objective ability to honestly rate this film.

After the screening both directors spoke. Junger reiterated what he has earlier documented in an interview. “We were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well… and prevented us from using an outside narrator.”

In his talk to the audience, Sebastian Junger said that each viewer tends to read into this film what is in his or her own heart about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Both directors asserted that they consciously documented what was happening, without editorializing. However, they have found that the bias viewers see is their own. Junger called it a Rorschach test.

Watch this film and let us know what you saw. Let’s keep a tally of our heart’s true response and degree of support to the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Film Info

Web site:
Director: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Producer: Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington
Editor: Michael Levine
Cinematographer: Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington
Principal Cast: The Men of Battle Company, 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team
Awards: Sundance Film Festival 2010 (Grand Jury Prize –Documentary)
Genre: Documentary, Political
Run Time: 96 minutes
Awards: Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, Sundance Film Festival 2010
Web site:
Release Date: June 25, 2010-06-03
Released by: National Geographic Entertainment
Directors’ Interview:

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4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Bev #

    Let your US senator and representative know what you think:

  2. TERRY #

    hi Bev, your commentary about the film, while observant and accurate as to its content, went beyond what the film attempted to portray, which was the conditions of danger, fear and loss the soldiers experienced in that area of conflict, coupled with an intimate examination of the feelings of hope and despair of the individual soldiers engaged in this deadly effort.

    in this respect, this film represented pure documentary, and the lack of any obvious film-maker bias strengthened its credibility. in my opinion the film rated a “5”, as a realistic and vivid portrayal of the actual and unscripted war experience, the result of 10 months of filming by the directors while actually embedded with the troops. as the directors remarked to the audience after the film, it was their continued close proximity to the soldiers that allowed an intimate and unselfconscious portrait of each person to emerge.

    there can be no doubt that, regardless of the political wisdom of the war, many people are risking and losing their lives at the direction of our govt, and specifically Prez Obama, as commander-in-chief of the military. as voting citizens it is our duty to be informed regarding our country’s war effort. seeing this documentary, which shows the actual fire-fights close up and personal, along with “collateral damage” of civilians, as well as clumsy, heavy-handed and often insensitive attempts to negotiate with the Afgan elders, is valuable as one important piece of information to help educate us as to the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, of our war effort there.

    while i happen to share your view as to the seeming utter hopelessness of the mission of that particular platoon in the Korengal Valley, and the apparent hopelessness of the overall war effort in Afgan, the point of the film, as stated by its directors, is not to make a political assessment the Afgan war. Prez Obama and his team as our elected representatives are making the political assessement, much to my personal dismay, but this is not a film that is intended to analyse that, altho one is sorely tempted to do so.

  3. Bev #

    Terry, a great set of comments on “Restrepo.” You are correct in all respects. Whatever the reaction from this film, it is usually strong.

  4. Bev #

    Tim Hetherington, Oscar nominated filmmaker for “Restrepo” was killed today while filming under fire in Libya. One-time investigator for the UN Security Council, Hetherington was a reporter on conflict and humanitarian issues for over 10 years.

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