The war on terror has been a tricky subject for dramatic filmmakers, with "The Hurt Locker" the one exceptional fictional film that managed to find an audience.
The great films about combat in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly have been documentaries, and "Restrepo" continues that track record with an intimate portrait of a platoon's tour of duty that's disturbing, rattling and heartbreaking in its immediacy.
"Restrepo" directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger dug in with a U.S. Army platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade during much of its 15-month deployment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, which the filmmakers describe as one of the most dangerous military postings.
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Hetherington, a veteran war photographer, and journalist Junger, whose books include best-seller "The Perfect Storm," wisely follow "The Hurt Locker" formula and leave politics aside, taking no stance on the war other than to show the daily lives of the people fighting it.
"Restrepo" unfolds with an objective yet impassioned voice, the soldiers' actions, words, loyalty, even their horseplay combining for an unforgettable chronicle of fraternity under fire.
And the men are constantly under fire — sometimes as often as three or four times a day. Hetherington and Junger's cameras reveal the assaults in frightening detail as the platoon fires back to repel attacks with matter-of-fact resolution.
One scene, almost unbearable to watch, captures the terrible outpouring of emotion after a comrade is killed. Such agonizing images bring home the war in a way no news report or fictionalized drama ever could.
There are moments that seem trivially absurd on the surface, such as the platoon's negotiations with local Afghan residents over reparations for a cow killed after becoming entangled in an outpost fence.
The absurdity quickly fades as Afghan faces register dissatisfaction at the compensation offered and distrust of the American soldiers trying to broker the deal.
If such small matters can be cause for tension and discord, imagine the awful task of U.S. officers trying to explain to Afghan families how American artillery wound up killing and wounding innocent villagers. "Restrepo" presents such encounters as yet another example of the terrible tightrope American troops must walk as they try to fight the Taliban without turning more of the locals against the United States.
The grim narrative is intensified by the backdrop of the stark mountain terrain surrounding them. Hetherington and Junger's images are both bleakly beautiful and claustrophobic, demonstrating the awesome yet narrow spaces in which the soldiers lived more than a year of their lives.
"Restrepo" deservedly won the top documentary prize at January's Sundance Film Festival. The film takes its title from the name of the outpost where the platoon spends most of its tour, which in turn was named after PFC Juan Restrepo, a medic killed in action early in the deployment.
In conversations during the deployment and interviews after returning to their base in Italy, platoon members plaintively recall their fallen comrades and ponder if any good came out of their sacrifice. None have any answers, but their recollections reveal one certainty: Whatever nations might fight for, these men are fighting for one another.
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