Menus Subscribe Search

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.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Moving Pictures

MOVING PICTURESAn occasional look at movies that matter.

[/class]

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.

[class name="dont_print_this"][/class]

“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.

More From Lewis Beale

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.