On the first full day of film screenings, the Sundance Film Festival set the bar almost impossibly high with “Restrepo,” a documentary about the Afghanistan War. For 15 months, directors Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”) and Tim Hetherington embedded themselves with an army platoon serving in the Korengal Valley, known as the deadliest place on earth, as they battle the Taliban and Al Queda from an outpost named after their fallen comrade, Juan Restrepo.
“Restrepo,” co-produced with National Geographic, is that rare documentary that doesn’t take a side. Asking why we are in Afghanistan or whether the war is winnable has no place in “Restrepo” because such philosophical questions have nothing to do with the day-to-day dealings of the soldiers we spend 90 minutes with. The movie doesn’t aim to change your position on the war one way or the other, but it is impossible to not be changed after seeing “Restrepo.” The film follows the soldiers from one week before deployment to months later as they are interviewed in Italy after leaving the hell hole that is Outpost Restrepo. It is told almost totally experientially from the soldiers’ point of view with no narration.
The soldiers are up against seemingly insurmountable odds as they fight an often unrecognizable enemy with no unified frontlines in a terrain impossibly rugged with ambushes possible at every turn. In fact, soldiers in the Korengal Valley took fire every day for two months straight. The relentless assaults are only broken up by the monotony and boredom of war when a battle is not being waged.
The platoon is there primarily to provide security as the locals build a road through the valley that will, ostensibly, make their lives much easier and aid commerce. While the directors follow the soldiers’ tour of duty in chronological order, from the start, the footage in the Korengal Valley is interspersed with the interviews in Italy. The soldiers, most of whom are still so young as to have their faces dappled with acne, are shells, each one haunted in a different way from the experience. Some can’t sleep, no matter how much medication is prescribed. Others say they have no idea how to process what they’ve seen. Toward the end of their tour, after a sister company suffers a horrendous assault, their young captain, who seems well meaning but in so far over his head, tries to turn them into killing machines. By then, the men are exhausted and beaten down and all that matters is inflicting as much pain on their enemy as has been inflicted on them.
To the man, their worst memories are of Rock Avalanche, an assault where they are going into completely unchartered territory as they try to push back the insurgents. During the exercise, they know they will be attacked and when the attack finally comes, it is brutal, leaving their most accomplished soldier dead and a beloved staff sergeant wounded. The directors capture it all in real time as we see the soldiers react to someone they love dearly die. Remarkably, only one of the soldiers becomes hysterical upon realizing his friend has died, in part, because he feels he put the dead soldier in harm’s way. His fellow soldiers completely dismiss their grief and move on, as they must. It is the one time in the movie that we see blood and a dead U.S. soldier’s body, but the horror and harm done is conveyed more effectively by the soldiers’ words than any pictures could ever provide.
The difficulty of their mission plays out over and over again until the viewer is left with a certain sense of hopelessness that the Army, no matter how skilled, can battle the enemy successfully on their own turf. In addition to dealing with the insurgents, the soldiers must deal with the locals, some of whom are paid by the insurgents to hide ammo. Each week, the captain meets with the local leaders in an attempt at diplomacy. The meetings often take on a surreal tone as the U.S. soldiers have clearly been taught to be sensitive to the locals’ needs, but between language barriers, culture clashes and a wide sense of distrust on both sides, there is little hope of true cooperation or communication. However, the anguish on the captain’s face when an Army raid leaves five locals dead is palpable, but, in part, it’s clear his pain has to do with the difficulties the deaths will cause as his platoon continue to try to work with the locals.
“Restrepo” leaves the viewer with an awe and respect for the soldiers who serve, but also with a palpable sense of sorrow for their losses suffered while in Afghanistan and for the haunted souls who return to the U.S. as shadows of who they were before they left. It is required viewing.
The same cannot be said of “Boy,” a whimsical movie about an 11-year old New Zealand aboriginal boy, in 1984 who lives in a fantastical world that revolves largely around his obsession with Michael Jackson. His father, whom he describes as a master carpenter, world class scuba diver and man of the world, is actually in jail. “Boy,” written and directed by Taika Waititi, starts off strong, but loses the thread as Boy, as he’s called, realizes his father, whom he idolized in absentia, is a pathetic loser who only came back to find money buried in the back yard. To compensate, Boy fantasizes about his father as Michael Jackson in the “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” videos. The dance moves are picture perfect, but Waititi obviously couldn’t get the rights to the music so the shots play out against instrumentals that make no sense. The best part of “Boy” are the completely natural performances by James Rolletson, who plays Boy, and by Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, who plays his six-year old brother.