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Movie Review: Restrepo

All grunts, no glory in 'Restrepo'
Genres: Documentary, War
Running Time: 93 min
Release Date: 2010-06-25
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

Every soldier likely to see active duty should be shown “Restrepo” before going into the field. That’s not because it exalts or attacks the U.S. Army – it’s the most apolitical documentary I know – but because it gives such a down-to-Earth view of the joys, terrors, boredom, anxieties and camaraderie in a war zone.

That war zone is the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The Second Platoon of Battle Company has settled in for 15 months of almost daily attacks by the Taliban, punctuated by U.S. attempts to convince village elders that America can help them improve the infrastructure of their valley – and that the promise of such help is worth risking death from the Taliban for cooperating with us.

Most features, whether fictional or not, develop a narrative around one protagonist or a small group, so we identify with characters and become emotionally invested.

This one does not. It mixes 2007 footage in the field and post-combat interviews with more than a dozen veterans, a few of whom reveal personal details but most of whom represent the average soldier.

Directors Sebastian Junger (who wrote the book “The Perfect Storm”) and Tim Hetherington don’t want us to see these experiences as one man’s story. This is every man’s story, at least in a dry and desolate countryside where many acts seem futile.

Soldiers set up an outpost (named Restrepo for a slain comrade) at a high point in the valley. They take and return fire. They hike down into villages to look for the Taliban, often confronted by men who bewail the women and children killed in the attacks.

These soldiers aren’t unusually heroic, though they’re willing to risk their lives. They’re not dehumanized or degraded by war. They’re frequently baffled about what to do: The problem of recompense for a cow that died accidentally requires conferences with headquarters and yields no happy result, except for the broiling of fresh steaks.

They know why they’ve come and what they’ll face each day. When a popular sergeant gets killed, leaving one soldier in tears, the captain quickly delivers a matter-of-fact but not unfeeling pep talk that refocuses the troops, and soon they’re ready to work.

Junger and Hetherington leave it to you to decide if this work is worth doing. Will a secured Afghanistan make the world much safer, assuming we can ever secure Afghanistan? Or will our involvement ultimately be as fruitless as it was in Vietnam?

The soldiers don’t philosophize about this in front of us, any more than guys on a construction crew philosophize about an architect’s design for a house. They just do the job they’re hired to do. If you’ve been curious about the daily minutiae of that dangerous task, this is the movie to see.

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8/05/2010 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

The most believable documentary about soldiers in the field of war I have seen.

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