"Restrepo," which has its small screen premiere on Monday (Nov. 29) night represents a major programming coup for National Geographic Channel.
I missed "Restrepo" multiple times at Sundance back in January and never found the right time to catch it during its brief, limited theatrical run this summer. Normally when documentaries slip through those respective cracks, your best chance to watch them would come on HBO or PBS (or just via Netflix). But here's NatGeo giving a small screen home to a probable Oscar nominee for Outstanding Documentary. And "Restrepo" is an unflinching, intense, occasionally horrifying portrait of war, which makes a statement for NatGeo, still better known for pretty nature docs like "Great Migrations" than its many hard-hitting specials.
I can't actually say what form "Restrepo" will be in when NatGeo airs it. The network promises a premiere "with limited commercial interruption," but even limited interruption will doubtlessly break the film's grim momentum. It's also unclear if NatGeo is going to maintain the language in the film, which is every bit as salty and unguarded as you would expect from 20-something soldiers in combat.
Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, "Restrepo" has a fly-on-the-wall immediacy that's difficult to deny, even if its journalistic approach to the subject matter makes it occasionally feel like a companion piece to both directors' respective books, rather than a piece of art in its own right.
More thoughts on "Restrepo" after the break...
The filmmakers spent 15 months embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers station in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, with the tour of duty yielding "Restrepo," Junger's "War" and an upcoming collection of photographs from Hetherington.
"Restrepo" is intentionally devoid of context. We're told through opening titles that the Korengal is considered one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan, but no effort is made to explain the area's strategic value in our larger war effort or to lay out the specific mission entrusted to these young men. They're plunked down in inhospitable terrain and asked to hold a nearly imaginary line. When they advance said imaginary line and set up a new outpost -- named, like the film itself, after their medic, an early casualty -- it's a point of pride, but not a triumph that could ever be celebrated by cuing the strings section for a melodic swell. For these soldiers, completing the tour will be a victory.
As reporters, Junger and Hetherington -- there's no clear division of responsibilities -- had a tremendous amount of access to this platoon and there's little doubt that they gained the trust to go along with that access. The soldiers are candid with the cameras around, whether that means they're exposing emotional insecurities or being rambunctious and politically incorrect to let off steam. The in-country footage is contrasted with standard talking head footage shot simply against a black backdrop. In those interviews, we see the men as they are today, seemingly in one piece on the surface, but not hiding their post-traumatic difficulties sleeping and processing what happened to them and the people they served with.
Politically, the movie is a bit of a Rorschach test.
If your prism is left-leaning, you'll note the confused authority figures lacking in cultural awareness or sensitivity, tasked with no particular mission and turning young soldiers into killing machines often incapable of telling enemy combatants from civilians. You'll see a war apparatus that dehumanizes its key components and that also thinks nothing of sacrificing our boys in uniform without any end in sight. You'll watch and go, "See? What was the point?"
If your prism is right-leaning, you'll see a love letter to our troops and a validation that their mission is a just one, even if it's fuzzy. You'll see a humanizing portrait of individual soldiers standing out from the war machine and trying to fight for a cause that they believe in. And even if there are civilian casualties on the Afghani side, you'll see that those mistakes weren't preventable within the fog of war. With the bumbling politicians and clueless officers in clean, starched uniforms out of the picture, you'll see patriots who only want to defend the nation. You'll see men whose unquestioning loyalty is only an attribute.
Or, if you don't happen to be wearing glasses that see things only in black *or* white, you'll get a little of each of those sides. Junger and Hetherington don't ask the men to defend themselves when they're being homophobic or racist and they don't ask the men to explain themselves when they're terrified or saddened. As the movie plays out, you take from the situation what you can or what you choose to.
Sometimes "Restrepo" is scary and unsettling. There are occasional indications that somebody had the common sense to keep Junger and Hetherington out of major firefights or offensives, but mostly they're right there and the bullets are flying and the shelter is shaking and you can't imagine ever subjecting yourself to such a thing, nor can you imagine why these articulate, funny young people would.
And "Restrepo" is also a funny movie, though I'd never describe that as its dominant tone. The men themselves are situationally cracking jokes and lightening the mood, but more of the humor is of the dark, harrowing Catch-22 variety like The Cow Incident or several conversations between their sergeant and the local leaders in which communication is somewhat less-than-clear.
And, finally, "Restrepo" is sometimes disconcertingly beautiful. There's a perception that I know I have about the landscape of Afghanistan. My mental image has no connection to the actual Korengal, which is mountainous and inhospitable, but simultaneously green and verdant. It's the sort of place you'd stop to photograph the entire panorama, if you weren't fearing attack from all sides.
The biggest thing that stands in the film's way is its relative familiarity. Thanks to the embedding program, we're accustomed to the general imagery from both Iraq and Afghanistan, though maybe not sustained over 96 minutes in this way. Our two wars have been so thoroughly documented that even if you pick and choose -- say you've seen "The Tillman Story," "Gunner Palace" and "Standard Operating Procedure," to take a semi-representative sample of docs I've seen in the last nine months alone -- you might still come away inundated.
Even if "Restrepo" isn't the best of the lot, it's in the upper tier. It's a worthy snapshot of war and you now don't need to go to Park City, Utah or even to your local art house theater to see it.
Sepinwall and I will talk more about "Restrepo" in the podcast on Monday.
"Restrepo" airs on Monday, November 29 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.