The old men, village elders, all seem to have bright red beards.
The mountains, with craggy pine trees and sun-baked stone and sand, look more like the American Southwest than even the Hollywood films set in Afghanistan and filmed in parts of the United States. But the valleys below are shockingly green, the houses a mix of pueblo-style hillside dwellings and more modern, if still primitive, structures.
And the combat is distressingly routine — deadly ambushes by unseen foes, beloved comrades killed, grim resolve by the GIs to do their dirty job, or at least make it through their tour of duty.
Restrepo, the latest in a string of Middle East combat documentaries, has a smattering of eye-opening moments and a feel for the frustrating Vietnam War-like nature of the combat — troops stationed in isolated outposts, sniping at and being sniped at by enemy guerrillas. But it takes nothing from the sacrifice and bravery of those doing the fighting to point out that this is a pretty routine and somewhat tame installment in a now overexposed documentary genre — the embedded combat film.
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Restrepo was made by writer Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington, who spent a year, off and on, with a platoon from the 173rd Airborne Brigade: 15 men stuck on a remote outcropping in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley, a land of daily firefights. The men named their forward outpost after one of the first of their ranks to die there: Juan "Doc" Restrepo. The movie follows them from deployment to their return to Europe, where they were debriefed for interviews that provide the narrative structure of the film.
We see the platoon transition from "Dude, it can't be that bad" swagger to "Good firefight; you can't top that" high to " I just want to get home" fatigue.
They smoke, horse around and dig a base out of the rock in between firefights. We don't get to know any of them, but these are big, strapping young men who hump huge packs up and down the hills and valleys, carrying the fight to the Taliban. They see themselves as warriors.
The film captures accidents (bombing a house full of children); testy meetings with village elders irked by the death of a cow; and vivid, shaky-cam coverage of gun battles, complete with tracer bullets and helicopter and A-10 Warthog airstrikes.
But even though we see blood, here and there, we don't see graphic images of casualties. Hetherington and Junger treat American dead and wounded with a respect and a TV-friendly gentility (they were on assignment from ABC News). And they apparently never ever saw the enemy, dead or living, in the flesh.
The result is a movie that captures the grim routine of combat duty, and even quite a bit of combat, but that never shows us the foe, those who must be outsmarted and defeated. The soldiers suffer, swear, shoot and show fear and grief. But it feels too abstract, as if the filmmakers so bonded with them that they sanitize their experience for us just as these brave men sanitize it for their families back home, to keep them from worrying.
Thus, we meet a few of the people they're fighting to help, get a general lay of the land, but don't get a full appreciation of what Pfc. Restrepo died for. At this point in all our Middle Eastern conflicts, we need more from a documentary than just a grunt's-eye-view of the frustrating nature of the fighting with its Vietnam parallels of a foe you can't see, can't crush and seemingly can't out-wait in this dusty, decade-long war.