In 2007, journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and war photographer Tim Hetherington picked up video cameras and spent the next 14 months filming moments big and small in the lives of the 15 soldiers of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd U.S. Airborne.
Among them was 20-year-old Pfc. Juan S. Restrepo of Pembroke Pines, who was killed soon after the platoon was dropped into Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, a landscape CNN once described as “the most dangerous place on Earth.” Restrepo, a medic, was shot in the neck and bled to death in the helicopter rushing him to safety. The little footage we see of him reveals an animated young man with a brash sense of humor and a likable, swaggering personality.
So when his fellow soldiers, taking fire from unseen Taliban fighters, manage to establish an outpost in the valley, they name it after their fallen friend, whose spirit haunts a movie that is, like war, harrowing and heartbreaking, tedious and routine.
The video footage, which is intercut with retrospective interviews with the surviving soldiers after they completed their tour of duty, is often shaky and haphazard, befitting filming conditions in which the directors, like the soldiers they were documenting, are under a constant barrage of bullets and bombs.
In their hilltop outpost, the men, led by Capt. Dan Kearney, seem to be cut off from the rest of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They are, for the most part, on their own as they meet with local leaders to try to win the proverbial hearts and minds (a task made difficult in one scene when a U.S. bombing run accidentally kills several civilians).
We also watch the men embark on Operation Rock Avalanche, a treacherous assignment during which the filmmakers’ cameras capture the raw, inconsolable grief of a soldier when another member of the platoon is killed. Restrepo makes time to observe these men during brief off-duty stints — at one point four use an iPod to form an impromptu, joyous dance party — but the bulk of the film centers on their insanely dangerous and heroic work.
Restrepo avoids political discussion. It just revels in the heroism of these impossibly young, brave soldiers who follow orders that at times seem pointless because following them is what their country has asked them to do. At the end of the film, when we once again see brief footage of the doomed Restrepo, on his way to Afghanistan and surrounded by men we’ve come to know and admire tremendously, this war has rarely felt so tragic — or so ill-conceived.
Directors-producers: Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherson.
Editor: Michael Levine.
A National Geographic Entertainment release. Running time: 95 minutes. Vulgar language, war violence.