After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the film, “Restrepo,” yesterday. I walked out of the theater a different person than when I walked in, with a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices being made by U.S. soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan. I also emerged with an even greater disgust over the futility of meaningless missions where death is around every corner and victory a seeming impossibility. For these men, it is just about getting through the next day. And the next. Alive.
“Restrepo,” is a bold, unique documentary without commentary other than the interviews with the soldiers. It takes us into the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, dubbed “the most dangerous place of Earth.”
As the film opens, we see the men being transported into the deep, mountainous, rocky valley of death. Many of the men choose not to even look out the windows on the flight in. They know where they’re headed. They don’t need to see the danger that lies below.
We begin with a platoon, but after one soldier named Juan Restrepo is killed, we find ourselves with just 15 men in a ramshackle outpost built during the night in the heart of the Korengal and named by the men for their fallen comrade.
The men build this dangerous base high in the mountains, as one of Restrepo’s friends calls “a giant middle finger to the Afghans who populated the Korengal,” whose motives and real priorities are always in doubt and who are paid a few dollars a day to rain bullets and shells on the Americans. This is the enemy they face, whom they seldom see, but frequently hear in the near-constant barrage for which they are always on guard.
Like no other fictional war film I’ve seen, “Restrepo,” made me feel like I was right there beside these men; while they wrestle each other to ease to tedium, while they worry about the next attack and, in the film’s most terrifying section, when they go on patrol. It’s on one such patrol that this company of men is ambushed. One soldier is killed instantly and a number of others are wounded. And here we see the grunts eye level of complete fury and despair. It’s a deeply wrenching scene that I expect to stay with me for many weeks. It will surely stay with the men for the rest of their lives.
In the end the men finally leave the Korengal Valley, not in victory but in a kind of joyous relief that they have survived their descent into this real life inferno. Many of the men who are interviewed at the films end wonder aloud how they will ever truly leave this hell behind.
“Restrepo,” is a remarkable, personal film that leaves you asking hard questions like what are we really fighting for, and perhaps more importantly, how long it will be before we, as a nation, abandons this senseless, deadly conflict?