Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Review: Restrepo

When Restrepo opens this Friday at Film Streams...you need to go see it. Not for some ra-ra fake patriotism where you prove to everyone how American you are by your open support of the troops, but because this will remind you that we need to openly support our troops. For real. I'll let the review below that I wrote go into it, but what I was left DAYS later still choked up about was that the film never begged me for an emotional response, never guilted me or played on obvious themes. It just was what it was, and what it is, is brilliant. War documentaries are just so overdone these days, but this one is something special. See it. You won't regret it. And to the men and women overseas, once more let me say I had no idea. Thanks.

The Price of Dirt
Restrepo remembers the cost of war
Ryan Syrek

Restrepo could give a shit about politics.

This isn’t a documentary pontificating American foreign policy or contemplating moral ideology. It is front-line, front-view, handheld-camera hell, panning up from shots of hot spent shells falling into the boots of boys who are barely men as they vomit and cry at the sight of downed fellow soldiers. This is about exchanging blood for better vantage point, about how we misuse the word safety stateside, about how the Afghanistan War didn’t stop when we stopped paying attention to it. It is a breathless, brilliant film that stands as the definitive documentary on the subject to date.

Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger spent a year embedded in Afghanistan for “Vanity Fair” in the deadly Korangal Valley at outpost Restrepo, named for a medic killed early during their deployment. The 15 soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade built the outpost as an act of retribution, clawing a hole in a desolate, isolated mountainside under constant fire as a “middle finger” to Taliban forces.

Guided by Captain Dan Kearney, a hammer shaped like a soldier that is perpetually in search of a nail, the unit alternates between patrols into surrounding villages and fighting for their lives. Restrepo doesn’t linger on the homesick boredom that has become a staple of the modern war documentary. Instead, the film focuses on combat operations spliced with the shellshocked, baby-faced survivors, like Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, who grew up in a “hippie” home where guns were not permitted, and Specialist Miguel Cortez, whose permanent grin is nearly bright enough to distract from his hollowed eyes.

Unlike many similar films, Hetherington and Junger give their subjects space in these profanity-laden interviews, never probing or pushing, artfully and delicately allowing room for grief. This savvy approach is felt in the graceful pacing of the film as a whole, which never exploitatively uses explosions or gunfire to give the audience a “gotcha.” So much of the documentarian’s work is editing down the insane hours of footage, essentially moving around paint already poured on a canvas to make an identifiable image. Without question, Restrepo is one of the finest examples of such work in recent memory.

The posture and pretense of many Americans is that we “know the cost of war,” that we somehow appreciate and “never forget” the price that others have paid. Combine that with the glut of news coverage and films that purport to show what “life is really like for a soldier” and the subsequent compassion is really desensitization dressed up in finer clothes. Restrepo is gripping, horrifying and haunting because it is so plainly accurate, so staggeringly straightforward.

A shoo-in for Oscar’s shortlist, as inspired as it is informative, Restrepo will linger beyond its scant running time, taking up residence in your mind as forcefully as the troops built the titular outpost named after their friend. It deserves a spot there, having paid for it with a sacrifice most of us will only see projected on a screen.

Grade = A

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