Early in Restrepo, Army Capt. Dan Kearney of the 173rd U.S. Airborne Brigade's Battle Company recalls disdain for what he was told the conditions were in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal valley.
"The colonel told me, initially, 'They take fire every single day,'" he says, squinting his eyes in disbelief. "I was like, 'God, how the hell do you take fire every single day from somebody?' You go out there and kill the enemy. Quit being afraid."
Recorded by embedded journalists Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington, the documentary follows Battle Company as it confronts Taliban fighters during 14 months dug into one of the deadliest combat zones in Afghanistan. The soldiers' efforts are heroic, but the film is not a mission story. Instead, it's a riveting chronicle of life on the front lines and how soldiers cope with the psychological demands of war.
The Korengal Valley is a 6-mile stretch in which the road ends and Taliban control begins. The terrain is rugged and the communities so poor and underdeveloped that Junger describes the region as like "the Bible."
Soon after reaching the KOP (Korengal Outpost), Kearney decides to establish a forward outpost a half mile farther into the valley. The company reaches the exposed position under the cover of night and literally starts digging in, filling sandbags to create bunkers. Holding onto the spot is harrowing, and soldiers alternate firefights with digging into the rock. But it is what Kearney wants.
"It was like a middle finger sticking out," he says.
Battle Company names the outpost Restrepo, in honor of PFC Juan Restrepo, one of the group's early casualties. At first, it seems like a tribute, but they come to feel they are associating their friend with the worst place in the world.
The filmmakers are able to draw out some of the complicated moral calculus. Men talk of hearing about a death over the radio and running the names of fellow soldiers through their heads, hoping it's not one person or another, only to realize they're working their way toward who is most expendable to them. It's a stark example of how difficult it is to understand what war is like for the soldiers.
Men from Battle Company spent much of their deployment in one- and two-month-long stints at Restrepo, living with no running water, no cooked meals and no peace. They were attacked as many as four and five times a day. And yet, the silence of a couple of days waiting for the next attack was just as psychologically difficult, Junger said in an interview with Gambit. The film captures the young men, mostly ages 18 to 22, in intense firefights, trying to negotiate with the local population and living as an absurd fraternity of guys who in their downtime wrestle with each other and blow off steam in off-the-wall ways.
Junger met Battle Company while embedded in 2005. In 2008, he and Hetherington set out to follow the group during the course of a full tour of duty. They each spent five (non-consecutive) months with the troops, including time at Restrepo and going on missions. Interviews conducted in Italy after their deployment are spliced throughout. The film captures the fury of battle, the isolation of the region and the vulnerability of being in enemy territory.
It doesn't include the extensive night missions the group undertook, or the grit and nastiness of Restrepo's living conditions, Junger says. It's also hard to capture the way an extended tour in such a remote region frays soldiers' connections to their families and home, he adds. Junger also is quick to point out the film has no political agenda.
"Tim and I have well-formed political opinions about the war," he says. "But as journalists, our job is not to communicate those opinions. You don't want to tell people how to think. We hope our audience will do the same thing. Put aside opinions and watch what it's like for the soldiers."
Opens Friday, Aug. 20, at The Theatres at Canal Place.