Rating: R (for language throughout including some descriptions of violence)
Length: 93 minutes
IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Summery: RESTREPO is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.
After the war in Iraq, the last thing people want to know about, or even care about is the War in Afghanistan. Still, it’s going on as we speak, and our men and women are dying there. Restrepo provides an interesting prospective not only on the War in Afghanistan, but also war in general, and the people who fight in them. In this sense, the documentary actually does do a good job giving you a glimpse into these prospectives. But the documentary is also a double-edged sword that is done in such a way where I personally found it an OK film with great moments.
The most interesting parts of the documentary for me were simply the interactions of the men themselves. A small platoon charged with holding a valley, there lives mostly consist of simply biding time until they’re shot at. They dance, they wrestle, they sing, but mostly they just make conversation. In one scene a soldier is setting up a grenade launcher while holding a simple conversation that goes something like this:
SOLDIER: Your family has a ranch?
SOLDIER: Of course.
SOLDIER: Like cows and pigs and chickens and horses ranch?
SOLDIER: Like what kind of ranch then?
SOLDIER: It’s like a, a ranch just with like land, you know, with gates and stuff and trucks and what-not, you know.
It’s simple, but it also speaks volumes for the experience they’re going through. They’re in a remote valley in Afghanistan. There’s no TV, no internet, no movies. There’s mostly just each other.
Also interesting are the platoon’s relationship with the local people. The locals are simple farmers working harsh land living in an isolated culture based on tradition and religion. Understandably, they dislike the soldiers and their presence in their valley immensely. The leader of the platoon at one point is shown having to convince the tribe leaders that he won’t run the operation like the previous platoon leader, who apparently ticked them off. That’s at the beginning of the 15-month deployment. Relations soon deteriorate in the months following from a cow being killed by the platoon, civilians are inadvertently killed in a firefight, and towards the end of their stay, the platoon leader is shown saying “I don’t f**king care” at the grievances brought up by the leaders.
In more ways than one, this is one of the hardest aspects to get through of the documentary, but also in the war period. At one point the tribe leaders actually journey to the outpost to speak with the platoon. At first, one of the soldiers tells the camera that since this has never happened before, this action is very positive and shows progress in the relations with the locals. However, the leaders have actually journeyed to the post because they’re really ticked about that cow being killed. Apparently the cow had been caught in a fence, and seeing that the cow was suffering, the platoon killed it. The tribe of course is displeased at this action, and demands repayment, in the form of a lot of money from the US government. When denied this request however, saying that they can only offer the tribe food and the like, relations deteriorate even more.
The battle of “hearts and minds” is referred to as a derogatory term by the men, referencing the semi-ultimate point of their mission. Their primary objective is to clear the valley of insurgents. In this, the establishment of the outpost named after the film’s namesake is seen as a great victory for the mission since it’s the farthest they’ve ever pushed into the valley before. Keep in mind however that the “outpost” is actually a glorified hole they’ve dug and surrounded with barriers filled with dirt, with a few canvases stretched across to provide a shelter. This glorified hole on a hill is considered by the men the greatest accomplishment of their deployment.
This brings us to either the film’s greatest strength, or its greatest weakness. That is to say that all the proceedings shown are ultimately pointless. It’s waiting around to be shot at, and in between you might gain a little bit more ground on the enemy, but they’re still lurking in the hills, just waiting to kill you, with the ultimate support of the locals that ultimately hate you being there. That’s the War in Afghanistan according to this film. A mostly pointless effort that’s more trouble than it’s worth. Granted, I kind of came to that conclusion myself, since the film doesn’t exactly spell anything out, but all the pieces are there. You’re watching a pointless effort.
The question ultimately is whether Restrepo is worth watching. And ultimately, it’s kind of a personal decision, and what you’re looking for by watching the film. If you’re looking for war action, then you’ll mostly see descriptions of the actual action as told by the men. If you’re looking for a film about the slower moments of war, about a more personal side, then this effort will ultimately service you. If you’re looking for a look at the current War in Afghanistan, then you’ll also get that. For me, I had a range of emotions watching the film. At parts I was interested, at other parts I was angry, other parts bored, other parts frustrated, other parts intrigued. Ultimately however, if you do watch it, I can’t really find a scenario where you’ll want to watch it again. It’s an interesting work, but it’s just not one I can heartily recommend.