If, as the axiom goes, it can take as long as a decade after the start of a war for someone to make a decent movie about it, then Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are right on time. At Sundance's opening night on Thursday, the pair pulled the wraps off "Restrepo," the abstractly titled (it's the name of a fallen soldier, as well as a military outpost named for him) but grittily effective story about a U.S. platoon fighting in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
A cautionary attitude would have been justified from an audience that these last few years has seen 1) too many U.S. military movies with an air of redundancy and/or oppressiveness and 2) too many journalists putting themselves at the center of the story, a foible that "The Perfect Storm" author Junger hasn't exactly avoided over his meteoric career. But Junger stays mercifully out of sight (just a few off-screen questions shouted out, Errol Morris-style) and the soldiers, in various states of machismo and vulnerability, are engagingly front-and-center in this jolt of a movie about America's so-called good war.
As they shoot, play, strategize, mourn and conduct, as honorably as they can, the dishonorable job of shooting and killing, the soldiers are nothing if not galvanizing, and the audience at the Eccles Theater Thursday night ("the largest we've ever had watching a documentary at one time," festival director John Cooper noted wryly) responded in kind. It's impossible not to compare this movie with a host of other important documentaries about U.S. military activities of this past decade, many of which have played at this very festival. But even well-presented talking-head pictures such as "No End In Sight" can't match the in-the-moment verite offered by Junger and Hetherington.
In fact, the best comparison for "Restrepo" might be to the equally tense and illuminating script for "The Hurt Locker" -- except there's nothing scripted about this movie. We've become so bombarded with Hollywood perspectives on war that, watching this film, one can't stop but think that it's all just another set-up -- indeed, you may find yourself wondering why the director isn't cutting to the enemy -- until you stop and realize that this actually happened, and continues to happen, pretty much every day. (Incidentally, another Afghanistan movie, Amir Bar-Lev's "The Pat Tillman Story," is set to follow on this film's heels, while Hollywood is developing a few Central Asia projects of its own; we'll see if they can rise to the same high bar.)
National Geographic helped finance "Restrepo," and the television world that that brand comes from will likely be the most hospitable home for the picture. That's better than no home at all for a difficult war film, but after so many years of filmmakers and audiences failing to take on the subject directly, it would be nice if audiences could see this story, in all its intimate tragedies and challenges, on a large screen.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Restrepo." Credit: National Geographic