In 'Tillman' and 'Restrepo,' a pair of Afghanistan movies that seek a place above politics
For many of us, the prospect of going to a movie theater to see a war documentary has about the same appeal as getting our eyebrows repeatedly plucked out by a pair of rusty tweezers.
But any thoughts of discomfiture should be thrown out the window for two Afghanistan films that play in Los Angeles in the next week: Amir Bar-Lev's posthumous portrait of a soldier in "The Tillman Story" and Sebastian Junger's and Tim Hetherington's verite look at a U.S. army platoon in "Restrepo."
"Tillman," which plays the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sunday, tells the ostensibly familiar story of former NFL player and fallen U.S. soldier Pat Tillman in an altogether fresh way. It's both blood-boiling and poignant to watch Tillman's family seek the truth about his death, as well as uncover the layers of Tillman himself (a man who enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotism, but who also read the anti-war writings of Noam Chomsky).
"Restrepo," which opens in Los Angeles this Friday, offers a somewhat more raw filmgoing experience but makes some equally powerful choices as it shows moments of both adrenaline and tedium experienced by a group of soldiers fighting in the Korengal Valley, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous battlegrounds.
Both films were eye-opening and at times jaw-dropping, which is why we were extremely taken with them at the Sundance Film Festival (click on the links for our take on "Restrepo" and "Tillman"), and why it's heartening to see a broader audience get a chance to watch them just five months later. They're worthy movies not only because they have something to say (that has too much of a tweezery sound), but because they're satisfying cinematic experiences.
We also caught up with the filmmakers for a Los Angeles Times story about the "Tillman" and "Restrepo" documentaries, and our interviews with them only reinforced our feelings about the films.
"Most of documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan so far have been political polemics, and I think the public is exhausted by them," Junger says. "What our films are trying to do is to make an investigation into some very necessary topics."
Indeed, neither movie seeks to take sides but rather aims to show the ambiguous and difficult circumstances of the war in Afghanistan. Of course, it's impossible to completely avoid ideology and political messaging, and "Tillman" in particular wades into political waters as it condemns the U.S. Defense Department for conspiring to spin the circumstances of Tillman's death for the sake of recruiting more soldiers (which is probably why the film has caught the attention of Michael Moore, who's called it "one of the most important movies you'll ever see about the U.S. military.")
Bar-Lev has split feelings about his movie's underlying themes. "I don't think of it as an antiwar film. I want people on the right and left to be open to engaging with it," he says. "I did want to make a film that said we should be honest about war and not cloak it in Hollywood mythology."
-- Steven Zeitchik
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Top photo: A scene from "Restrepo." Credit: National Geographic. Bottom photo: Pat Tillman. Credit: Associated Press