Review: Excellent documentary 'Restrepo' chronicles war, sans judgment

Army Spc. Misha Pemble-Belkin is startled by the sound of gunfire during a firefight in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Restrepo takes its name from the outpost and a popular soldier who died here.

National Geographic Entertainment

Army Spc. Misha Pemble-Belkin is startled by the sound of gunfire during a firefight in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Restrepo takes its name from the outpost and a popular soldier who died here.

Restrepo (R) (94 min.) — Whereas most documentaries on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strain to make a difference one way or the other, Restrepo is uncommonly apolitical cinema verite. Videotaped in Afghan territory once considered the most dangerous place on Earth, Restrepo is about soldiers, not politics. The question of whether U.S. troops belong there isn't posed. Their devotion to duty and each other is unquestioned.

Photojournalists Sebastian Junger (also author of The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington were embedded with 2nd Platoon of Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade on five occasions to chronicle the fight against Taliban forces. The footage is as raw as the Korengal Valley, making the troops — in their captain's words — "fish in a barrel" for the enemy to shoot.

The film is named for the higher-ground outpost the platoon builds, which is also the name of a popular soldier killed in action: Pfc. Juan Restrepo of Pembroke Pines. His spirit hangs over the entire movie, inspiring while reminding them of their own mortality. Junger and Hetherington are cautious to not show Restrepo's or any other deaths. The horror is found in the surviving soldiers' eyes.

Restrepo has no particular story arc; rather it's a series of barely connected events in a succinct chronicle of war. If there is a dramatic core to the movie, it is the three-day assault on a Taliban stronghold resulting in civilian deaths, shocking casualties and painfully human reactions.

Mostly, the movie confirms the common definition of war as stretches of boredom punctuated by spasms of violent insanity. Restrepo is a bracing difference from the neatly packaged accounts that mainstream media coverage typically provides. You don't have to be a hawk or a dove to appreciate its unvarnished honesty.

Restrepo deserves its documentary prize from this year's Sundance Film Festival, and consideration for the Oscar.

It is booked only at Tampa's Citrus Park 20, but don't fret; the movie is slated for broadcast on the National Geographic channel in November. A

Steve Persall, Times film critic

>> fast facts

'War,' the book

Sebastian Junger's time spent embedded in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley while working as a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine also resulted in the book War (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99), which was published in May. War, a companion to Restrepo, focuses on the same soldiers and events of the documentary. Junger divides the book into three sections — Fear, Killing and Love — and uses psychology and military history to explore the mental, physical and emotional state of the 21st century American soldier.

Jennifer DeCamp,

Times staff writer

Review: Excellent documentary 'Restrepo' chronicles war, sans judgment 08/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 3:34pm]

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