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Sebastian Junger Brings AfPak to Big Screen

• June 24, 2010 • 9:00 AM

Author and now documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger brings AfPak to the big screen with polish and pathos in “Restrepo.”

Journalist Sebastian Junger says he’s “not going to spend another year with a unit at a remote outpost getting shot at,” and after seeing Restrepo, which opens June 25 in New York and Los Angeles, you can understand why.

The film, which Junger co-directed with Tim Hetherington, won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is a companion piece to War, Junger’s best-selling book about being embedded for more than a year with the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company in Afghanistan’s distant and incredibly dangerous Korengal Valley.

Shot on high-definition video often so sharp and luminous it almost looks like a Hollywood production, it hits all the right notes. It’s both an intimate look at the soldiers who are fighting this most vexing of wars, a frenzied, handheld view of real combat and, thanks to interviews shot back at the platoon’s home base in Italy, a sober reflection on the action we are seeing onscreen.

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And action there is aplenty. When the footage was shot in 2007 and 2008, the Korengal, which sits on the border of Pakistan, was a transit point for Taliban fighters entering Afghanistan. Because of this, the U.S. Army was determined to weed the enemy out, making this beautifully mountainous topography the site of intense warfare: By the end of 2007, almost 20 percent of all the fighting in the country, and 70 percent of all the bombs dropped, took place in the Korengal.

Or, as Capt. Dan Kearney, the no-nonsense platoon leader says in the film, “How can you take fire every single day? … I felt like I was fish in a barrel.”

That feeling is conveyed perfectly through Junger’s up close and personal shooting style, but Restrepo — the title refers to an outpost the soldiers built that they named after a fallen comrade — is more than just a 21st century version of The Red Badge of Courage. The film also spends plenty of time with the grunts during their down time as they clean weapons, tan, read, play chess, wrestle, even dance to music from an iPod.

And there are plenty of sequences featuring interactions with the locals, whether it is interrogating possible Taliban sympathizers or meeting with village elders to explain American objectives. There is even a semi-humorous sequence involving a local farmer who is demanding compensation for a cow of his that wandered into Restrepo‘s barbed wire and was butchered by the soldiers for meat.

But all this is secondary to the men themselves, a group that ranges from baby-faced Misha Pemble-Belkin, who grew up in a home where toy guns and violent videos were not allowed, to Sgt. Kyle Steiner, who admits after a firefight that ‘you can’t get a better high. It’s like crack. Once you get shot at, you can’t come down.”

No matter what, these guys all come off as dedicated, utterly devoted to their comrades, and a whole lot smarter and more introspective than you might initially suspect.

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“I grew up in a liberal family during Vietnam, and I had a lot of assumptions about the military which aren’t true,” says Junger of his experience in the Korengal. “The officers I met were incredibly smart, competent guys. And the soldiers, I expected people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale, and they weren’t. ”

If there is a high point in the film, it occurs during Restrepo‘s recounting of Operation Rock Avalanche, an action nearly every member of the platoon admits was their scariest moment of the entire deployment. A sort of search-and-destroy mission, the film makes it look like one of those especially scary episodes in which no one really knows where the enemy is, there’s a lot of shouting and firing into nowhere, and civilian casualties are an unfortunate byproduct of this sort of low-intensity warfare.

Adding to the emotional edginess is a sequence where the soldiers come across the body of a beloved sergeant, and one of the platoon members is so overcome he breaks down in tears and has to be consoled by his buddies.

Sequences like this, with their frenzied, “you are there” verite, alternate with shots so beautifully lit (all natural sunlight) and smoothly composed, there are moments you feel you’re watching a Jerry Bruckheimer production. That’s not meant as a criticism, and as far as Junger is concerned, the occasional slickness of Restrepo was deliberate.

“You can’t be afraid to burn footage; we shot a lot,” he says. “We got so much combat footage we were able to get creative, like, ‘Let’s get an eyeball shot of a guy shooting a gun.’ We put together a combat sequence that looked like it was from a narrative feature. That’s what we were going for.”

No matter how the film looks, however, Restrepo succeeds in what it sets out to do. Like other classic combat documentaries, it is resolutely apolitical, a look at soldiers in their element. Filled with blood, guts, testosterone and even humor, Junger’s film is a testimonial to the men whose job is warfare.

Whether you agree with the political aims of this particular conflict or not, it’s impossible to dismiss the men who are fighting it. That, ultimately, is what Restrepo is all about.

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

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