by Lewis Manalo
The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.
– Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
In documentary we deal with the actual, and in one sense with the real. But the really real, if I may use that phrase, is something deeper than that. The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound
It’s a fact of documentaries that audiences often have trouble separating a film’s subject from the film itself. If the subject is an attention-worthy topic such as poverty or political unrest, the film can bring useful attention to that subject, but very often the film won’t be judged on its own merits. Instead, the film will be judged by the opinions the audience has of its subject. The clearest example of this is in Michael Moore Hates America, when Moore’s fans admit that they’ll support what the filmmaker has to say despite ethically questionable editing decisions. With Restrepo, pretending to take the political issues away from their subject, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have produced a rambling and unfocused documentary that patronizes its audience with political beliefs that it assumes its viewers already have.
Restrepo follows an infantry unit of the 173rd Airborne throughout their deployment to the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan. There’s lots of shooting, there’s lots of fatigue, and there’s some death. There’s no political discussion or context for any of the footage. The reasons for the war are never addressed. The result is a lot of action that’s completely devoid of motivation. We watch the spectacle of killing and dying with a voyeuristic eye.
Objectivity and Authorship
I’ll grant that it was no small achievement for the filmmakers to follow their story through fifteen months of combat, although they were not actually there for fifteen months as some news pieces have implied. According to Junger’s book War, both filmmakers took five trips to the Korengal, either together or separately. But neither filmmaker suffered through the entirety of the deployment. And I don’t wish to detract from the hardships, loss, and achievements of the soldiers of the 173rd who are depicted in the film.
I want to make explicit that I am judging this film as a film and not as its subject. As a sapper in the 82nd Airborne, I took part in combat missions in Afghanistan, sweeping for mines, blowing up weapons caches, searching villages, and taking custody of bad guys. I’m familiar with the subject and shouldn’t be relied on to give an unbiased opinion of servicemen. You’re damn right I’m on the side of the soldiers. If Restrepo was about some leg unit, I might be liable to talk trash, but these men are Airborne. Since I’m on the side of the soldiers, I have to say it loud: this film has done these men a great disservice because it’s so fucking bad.
In press Junger and Hetherington claim that they simply reflect what they saw and heard, asserting that their film tells the reality of the life of the combat soldier, as if they had some objective insight into the lives of the men serving in Korengal. It’s an interesting claim to take in the light of logical sense. Someone had to decide when to turn the camera on, when to turn it off. Someone decided what images to cut together, what questions to ask the soldiers in their interviews. As a guy with experience making a documentary myself, I find their claim mighty cheeky.
No matter what they may claim, Junger and Hetherington tell us exactly what they think about our war in Afghanistan, and they think it’s horrible. And they already had that opinion going into it. Instead of trying to learn about the place where they were, the situation that they were in, they attempt to make the images they find fit into the frame that they want to show. Restrepo gives us nothing new — no new insights, no new truths.
Manipulation and Stereotype
Though not given overtly through voiceover, the manipulation from the filmmakers is heavy-handed and intrusive. The film opens with home video footage of a few soldiers on leave, drunk on a train, goofing around, bragging to the camera that they’ll soon be off to war. A few minutes later, the film intercuts footage from a helicopter flying over the Korengal Outpost to interviews of soldiers on a studio set. The soldiers on set say that as they flew into Korengal they were thinking, “We’re not ready for this,” and “I’m going to die here.”
Is that really what volunteer Airborne infantrymen, some of whom should have been through Ranger School, really think when they head out to work? The Korengal Valley is the office that every combat soldier dreams of commuting to. I don’t doubt that Rangers face deployment with some apprehension, but the film makes the soldiers look like all that they felt was fear and hesitation. What happened to all the swagger that was on the train in Italy? Why didn’t the filmmakers choose to intercut that bravado with the unit’s arrival to Korengal? Because it doesn’t make the American soldiers look like undertrained wussies?
Restrepo also manages to render combat boring. During some of the more intense fighting of the film, I found my mind wandering as the camera makes no attempt to understand what the soldiers are doing. The film makes no attempt to understand small unit tactics. What happened to understanding a soldier’s experience? It’s like a documentary about football players where the filmmakers don’t know the rules of the sport. The viewer is left as lost on the battlefield as the filmmakers, aimlessly following the ass in front of the camera.
Furthermore, having removed the politics from the battlefield, Junger and Hetherington have taken away the reasons why their characters fight. So the fighting not only looks completely unorganized, it also seems to be completely pointless, and the soldiers’ suffering and death appears to be in vain.
Restrepo is so superficial a portrait of soldiers at work that it can only reinforce the existing stereotypes of soldiers that civilians who do not have a soldier in their lives already have.
Throughout the film Junger or Hetherington can be heard off-camera asking their subjects unimaginative and loaded questions. Before a mission one of them asks the infantry captain sitting in his TOC if he ever gets nervous before a mission. What idiot wouldn’t get nervous? Why do the filmmakers even need to ask? Oh, yeah, so the captain can admit it on camera. The filmmakers continue with the loaded questions after leaving Afghanistan. In studio interviews the filmmakers ask several of the soldiers, “When were you most scared?”
Evidently, the fear in the American soldier is the only drama that the filmmakers have chosen to exploit for their story. Restrepo tells us nothing about the soldiers’ lives before the events of the film, and the only thing we know about the soldiers after they returned to Italy and to the United States is that several of them show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Are any of them still soldiers? Did any of them get jobs after they were discharged from the Army? Were their families happy to see them when they came home? We never know because these answers don’t fit into the frame that Junger and Hetherington have set up. They have no interest in understanding the soldiers’ experience. Their interest is in exploiting the soldier’s fear and mental trauma.
The Omniscient Documentary
Make no doubt about it. This film expresses a poltical viewpoint. It would have been a much better film if the filmmakers decided to actually learn something about their subjects, or if they’d decided to take an explicitly political stance. Michael Moore can make some ethically questionable choices as a filmmaker, but at least his films have a clear direction.
An author who claims to have captured objectivity, to have been able to see everything in the situation without filter of prejudice or opinion, is an author who claims to possess omniscience. Condescending to his audience, the omniscient author has the only opinion that matters. It’s not a new tactic for documentary filmmakers. Ever seen a Ken Burns film?
The best film I’ve seen this year is the documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a quietly moving film about bug collecting in Japan. With its strong point of view, Beetle Queen is very clearly a process of discovery about a subject and a culture previously unknown to the filmmaker. The film has its flaws, but it has its flaws because it’s honest. It feel sculpted and shaped, built. Rather than following a strict narrative throughline, it follows ideas and emotions.
In contrast, Restrepo feels cobbled together. Most of the events are seen in chronological order, but other than the narrative structure of how the deployment and the missions are organized, there’s nothing for the audience to follow. There are no character arcs, and there is no dramatic structure. The soldiers themselves become types whose names you can’t remember: the young-looking Hispanic kid, the Hippie kid, the Captain — but there’s nothing more to them than this. There’s nothing for us to become attached to.
The Award Winner
I’m not surprised that this film won an award at Sundance and that it’s getting theatrical distribution. I wouldn’t even be surprised if this film got an Academy Award. It tells a significant portion of the population what they want to hear about soldiers: “Soldiers hate it in Afghanistan.” “They don’t want to be there.” “They think war is awful.” “This war is making them mentally ill.” This portrait of the American soldier may make the civilian feel better about his or her ambivalence to the war in Afghanistan without asking him or her to confront the ambiguous political issues. Similarly, the audience doesn’t need to get to know the soldiers, but it can still feel good about recognizing their stereotyped mental-illness. If we treat them all like they have PTSD we can allay some of that guilt we feel about how we treated Vietnam vets.
Restrepo gives us nothing original and gives us no provocative opinions. It’s war porn, suffering for the sake of spectacle, the aesthetic equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild video. Like a Girls Gone Wild video there will be those people who find it entertaining, and it will tell those people exactly what they want to hear. You might be one of those people, but between Restrepo and Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break Vol. 6, I’m going with the topless girls.
Restrepo opens June 25th. Girls Gone Wild DVDs are already available.