Conventional wisdom has it that the reality of war is best captured not by dramatic films but by documentaries. And yet documentary filmmakers are just as likely to shape and refract their movies – to push a vision, an agenda – as any of their dramatic counterparts.
It's equally true that the dramatic truth of a fictional film can be more revelatory than a documentary rendering. A straight-up newsreel of the Normandy invasion may have the gravity of actuality, but "Saving Private Ryan" puts you right inside the inferno.
I raise these issues because the justly acclaimed new documentary "Restrepo" is being touted as more "real" than other war movies, including many war documentaries, because it records, without any apparent editorial intrusion, the 15-month deployment of a platoon of American soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan's highly dangerous Korengal Valley between May 2007 and July 2008.
Starting in 2007, Tim Hetherington, a veteran war-zone photographer, and author Sebastian Junger, best known for "The Perfect Storm," made a total of 10 trips to Korengal as embedded journalists on assignment for ABC News and Vanity Fair. It was Junger's idea to follow a single platoon for its entire deployment and then collaborate on a documentary and write a book about the experience ("War").
The film's title comes from the name of a medic who was killed early in the fighting, and whose name, in his honor, was used for the platoon's mountain outpost. As the movie begins, we see home movies of 20-year-old Pfc. Juan Restrepo good-naturedly roughhousing with his fellow soldiers en route to Afghanistan, and the effect is instantly heartbreaking.
There will be more deaths to come, and even though the filmmakers do not show us the wounded and blasted, we see the aftereffects. In the film's most powerful scene, a soldier considered one of the company's finest has just been killed during Operation Rock Avalanche, and another soldier, upon hearing the news, goes a little crazy on the spot. As one combatant later described it in an interview conducted by the filmmakers in Italy after the deployment was ended, "If this could happen to the best of us, what about the rest?"
The relative formlessness of "Restrepo" is, in itself, a kind of dramatic structure. It reflects the stop-start waywardness of war in general, and of this war in particular.
What the filmmakers do not provide is any political context to the war. The soldiers never debate the long-range purpose of their deployment. Was this because the subject never came up, or is it because Hetherington and Junger chose to leave it out in order to make the film seem more "objective"?
Likewise, they don't delve enough into the edgy relations between the company and the Afghan elders. What we do see is not uplifting. The winning of the locals' hearts and minds, integral to the war effort, oftentimes seems unachievable.
Because the war in Afghanistan is so much in the news now – it should always have been so – a movie like "Restrepo" is both a bracing document and, in a larger sense, a disappointment.
Even without footage of the dead and wounded, the hell of war has rarely been so straightforwardly conveyed, and yet, I wanted even more from this film. I wanted a full-scale examination of the American presence in Afghanistan, complete with political argument. Perhaps this is asking too much of any film, or at least of this one. Grade: A- (Rated R for language throughout, including descriptions of violence.)