The man who gives Restrepo its title appears very early on: on a bus heading to the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo grabs the camcorder that his platoon is sending around the bus, to joyfully holler right into the lens how damn excited he is to be going into combat with all of his buddies. We'll only briefly see him alive once more, in a film dedicated to putting the lie to Restrepo's ebullience, and a more perfectly on-the-nose opening to a war picture you could not imagine; and yet Restrepo is as thoroughly nonfictional as any documentary could be. Which makes this opening moment less of a cliché and more of a chilling precursor, just one of God's sick little jokes.
Restrepo was made by a photographer, Tim Hetherington, and a journalist, Sebastian Junger, neither of whom had ever worked in film before, and yet it is as rousingly cinematic as any other movie from 2010. Hetherington and Junger were embedded in Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and '08, on and off, on a Vanity Fair assignment; during their trips in-country, they shot around 150 hours of video footage which was ultimately carved into this 93-minute-long vacation to hell. The Korangal Valley, we are informed, was the most dangerous combat theater faced by American troops in 2007 (in April, 2010, the U.S. government finally abandoned the valley, after losing too many men there), and on the basis of Hetherington and Junger's film, it's completely easy to believe that statistic.
By the time the filmmakers were set up to start actively filming, Restrepo was already dead; his platoon (that would be Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment) named a new outpost in his honor, one that was intended by platoon commander Capt. Dan Kearney to provide the Americans with an excellent strategic vantage point overlooking much of the valley and interrupting Taliban lines. OP Restrepo was, in Kearney's optimistic view, going to represent the turning point in the Korangal campaign. In practice, it seems to have merely provided the Taliban with a more convenient target; nor is this the last point at which the gap between Kearney's hopes and reality will feature in the film. Every week, he hosts a meeting of the local tribal leaders; every week, he tries to promise them the moon if they'll help the American forces; every week, they react with the same exasperated contempt.
But politics are the last thing we're meant to take away from Restrepo which is, befitting the men who put it together, largely an act of reportage made with a the least possible editorial influence. As the soldiers raced up and down the rocky hills, with unseen assailants shooting from every which direction, so did Hetherington and Junger, camera in hand, run right along with them; as the soldiers sat in OP Restrepo, bored out of their mind and terrified that, at any minute, a rain of violence might start to fall on them, so did Hetherington and Junger sit and watch and try to capture as many of the details of everyday life as they could possibly manage. The directors have made their intentions clear in every interview and on the film's website: Restrepo is meant to be experiential, capturing as much as possible the feeling of being with the platoon in that place for a little more than year. It is not meant to explain the war, attack the war, condemn or criticise or praise. It is simply meant to depict, and to as far as it can, make us feel what the soldiers feel, though of course there's no equating the experience of watching a movie with the experience of being shot.
There are times when this hands-off, detached approach gets a bit annoying, feeling almost more like the filmmakers are dodging the hard questions (the liberal in me is offended that they let Kearney off the hook as much as they do; the conservative in someone else will doubtlessly have a different complaint); at times, it's even discomfiting and problematic. At one point, one of the soldiers is killed, and the camera catches up in time to bear witness as several of his comrades learn of his death and react with varying degrees of shock and numbness - but the camera remains curiously "apart" from the scene. It's an intimate moment, and part of it feels very much like we aren't supposed to be watching it; but the soldiers themselves do not mind, evidently, and that is really all the justification Hetherington and Junger require for putting the moment in the finished film. At the same time, it's not the only justification: if we're going to be thrust face to face with the grim, crushing reality of warfare - and there is no goal Restrepo cherishes more deeply than this - we need to see death, to be aware that one of the people who has been present here and there throughout the film is, in reality, dead; that those pops on the soundtrack, sounding more like firecrackers in the distance than the harsh cracks we usually think of when "gunshots" sound, are savage and deadly.
Even so, and despite the soldiers' ready willingness to play for the camera, never allowing us the luxury of feeling like this is all a dramatic fiction, it never seems like we're "there" - and of course we aren't. No matter how sincere and fastidious the reporting may be, and it is both of those things, Restrepo is always separated from us by one remove, showing us horrors (very real, very affecting horrors, mind you; never romanticising war, with the few moments in which the filmmakers themselves in the middle of a firefight coming across as disorienting and terrifying in a way that makes even the most adept Hollywood war movie seem callow) that we, fundamentally, cannot understand. That's a peculiar theme for a motion picture: "you are now about to see things which are beyond your comprehension", although it honestly seems like they might be beyond the participants' comprehension as well; throughout the film, in the only staged moments we ever see, there are clips from interviews Hetherington and Junger conducted with the soldiers in Italy, on the way home from Afghanistan, and most of the interview subjects have a dizzy, far-away look, like the concepts of "home" and "Italy" aren't really clicking for them, but having left the grinding reality of Korangal Valley, they can no longer remember it except as a series of impressions.
These interviews, the one concession to interpretation the film makes, serve to give a structure and frame to the main incident of Restrepo, but they do not overwhelm it, nor do they sentimentalise it. Instead, they simply add a grace note, a reminder of "this happened" which sets off and gives context to the "this is" of the rest of the movie. I suppose that's the main point of the film: it is humanist, treating battle from a person-sized perspective, and if that costs it a sense of history, the benefit far outweighs that loss. Ultimately, Restrepo reminds us that wars are fought by individuals, not faceless armies, and as much as we can tell ourselves about "the human cost", it takes actual humans with actual names to drive that point home.