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Restrepo (Blu-ray Review)

13 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $1.3 million
$19.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
‘R’ for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.

Way up on the list of the year’s “and you think you have it tough” screen achievements is this narrowly but searingly focused Afghanistan war documentary that’s currently on the short list of 15 for the feature award to be presented on the next Oscarcast. While admiring the brave men here and being ever-thankful not to be among them, it’s also important to remember that it also took an unseen crew to follow and photograph them in one of the globe’s most desolate hot spots.

The co-directors are Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, the latter the author of War (published last May and dealing with the same subject matter). He also wrote the bestselling The Perfect Storm, which got turned into a movie much inferior to this one. The story’s setting is Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, which is simultaneously one of the world’s most dangerous places (as it has been described) and almost certainly among the least worth defending simply in terms of a plot of geography anyone might conceivably want to own. But in terms of pursuing the elusive Taliban, it had its perceived worth — though the movie’s dispiriting coda is that, after all we’ve seen, the U.S. troops simply withdrew. Not that things like this ever are very simple.

Named for a beloved medic, sage and impromptu guitar instructor who was just 20 when he was killed, Restrepo chronicles 15 months with members of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade — whose survivors are interviewed in stark close-ups (in Italy, after the fact). They talk about first impressions of seeing the place and their all but doomed reaction. “Valley” is right; there doesn’t appear to be anywhere a person can walk without being surrounded by mountains or at least imposing hills from which any murky assailant can easily take cover in phantom fashion.

Winner of a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance almost a year ago, the documentary isn’t political — which is both its limitation and a factor in its status as a “pure” experience. We hear references to killings above and beyond Juan Restrepo’s but do not see them. One wonders, so as to avoid a Gen. Stanley McChrystal-type incident, how restricted the filmmakers were in what they could show.

What we do see is an exercise in futility, as the initially enthusiastic Capt. Dan Kearney struggles to win the hearts and minds of the village elders — an apt term for a place that doesn’t exactly ooze “youth demographic.” They file in about once a week, one of them sporting the most unnatural-looking reddish hair you’ll ever spot outside of a punk club. Kearney tries to explain to them the benefits of playing ball: fresh roads or maybe fresh rice. It is a head-banging assignment (like trying to close a deal selling iffy securities) — compensated only by the fact that it beats taking fire.

Avoidance of the last, or at least surviving it, means that life is never boring — yet an unspoken subplot of the movie is what to do on “off” time in a place where there’s nothing to do. Well, there’s wrestling for fun, which must wear out its welcome before too long. Or maybe a few strums from someone’s guitar, probably as a result of that tutelage from Restrepo, for whom the men’s outpost is named. Fifteen months of this, or even 15 days, must have been unimaginably repressive. And we can see it on the men’s stressed-out faces during the post-assignment interviews — which, because of what we’ve seen, have a power that most talking-heads replies (even the interesting ones) don’t have in many documentaries.

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