Hand-held verisimo video has been much in the news lately, bringing, at long last a change in perception about the reality of police use of armed force followed by exculpatory explanations.  People who have always thought of the police as using force only when they absolutely had to exclaim: “Jesus!  That guy was really shot in the back eight times, in the back, while running!” It’s a change in perception that’s been a long time coming, especially for those who have known for a long long time.

Movies RestrepoI couldn’t help but think about film and its effect on how we see armed violence while watching Sebastian Junger‘s 2010 documentary, Restrepo. Would a verisimo documentary (or two) help change the default opinion that if war is declared it must be for a good reason?

We’ve all seen plenty of war movies over a life-time, and whatever the details of the story, desperate fights, escapes from POW camps, air drops behind the lines, the sub-text — for all nations– is of necessity and heroism, fear overcome, big explosions, improbable feats, identifiable good guys, and bad, usually a love interest woven in. With very few exceptions — Catch 22 and Johnny Got His Gun come to mind– heroism overcomes, manly values shine through. Friends and comrades may get killed, but the good guy, comes through.  Even in death, the value of self sacrifice for others, for the nation, live on.  And, if the sacrifice is to be honored, the war must not be questioned.

Even documentaries, few as they are, have historically been crafted to provide war-fighting morale for the folks back home.  Would Restrepo be part of this convoy? Or would something else emerge, if only a real sense of real men, their lives really in danger?

Scripted war movies, from Hollywood or Bosnia can be fully immersive experiences, of course, but we remind ourselves — sometimes in order to keep watching it — this is just a movie!  And so we can escape the transfer of knowledge that stories have always brought: the actors are acting, the writers and director have an agenda, they have never experienced war. With a good documentary this should not be so easy to do.

Though I had some doubts. Junger is one of the new generation of adventure-compelled writers, from stories of storms at sea to fire fights in high Afghan mountains. His first, and still best known book, was the non-fiction The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. (1997) It is almost a perfect book of risk taking and meeting danger, later turned into a film with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. I don’t know if Junger would characterize himself as an adrenaline junky, but reading about him, or reading his books, the suspicion rises.  It would be difficult, I thought, for a man drawn to danger, to not portray it through the lens of high thrills, risks taken, competence and training bringing him through.

Not content with danger by proxy, interviewing men and women who had spent harrowing days at sea for The Perfect Storm, Junger decided to enter into it in person.  Along with British photographer, Tim Hetherington (deceased 2011) he got embed status with a platoon of U.S. Army 173rd Airborne soldiers (15 soldiers.)  Airborne has a high tough-guy reputation in the military.  This unit was sent into the Korengal Valley in North East Afghanistan, said by the soldiers to be “the most dangerous place on earth.”  The Taliban had long held sway among the populace.  The tour was fifteen months in several a fortified positions, one of them, Restrepo, named for a friend, killed in the early months.  Squads go out often, sometimes to meet local tribal men, trying to enlist aid in road building projects,  win confidence and get intelligence. Sometimes raiding homes.  Sometimes on “a movement of contact.” Hetherington and Junger joined them for five trips between June 2007 to June 2008, the longest for one month.

The Korengal Valley

The Korengal Valley

Shot with professional equipment by two experience photographers, Restrepo is certainly more crafted and edited than cop-cam or iPhone shots, but it often has a similar feel — wildly jerking camera motion, real-time panting, raw, spontaneous language, expressions of fear and sometimes nonchalance at the sound of bullets.

No doubt about it, these photographers were there.  They and the 15 men in the film really were in the Korengal Valley on remote outposts, being fired at sometimes five and six times a day. What we see and hear are what they saw and heard –about as close to soldiers at war as most people are likely to get.  Even so, real-time episodes might have been edited to show only stirring high-lights, the mundane or terrible taken out. Restrepo doesn’t do this.

From the opening scene of the youngsters in a transport plane, goofing and laughing about ‘going off to war,’ to later scenes of some wondering what the hell they are doing, we get an honest picture of young men in a battlefield — sometimes grunt labor, digging in rocky soil, sometimes guy-on-guy semi erotic rough housing, sometimes scary foot patrols at night. Two particularly informing sequences have one soldier talking about the “high” of being shot at:

 “You can’t get a better high. It’s like crack, you know. You can sky-dive, or bungee jump, or do kayak, you know.  But once you’ve been shot at, you really can’t come down…  You can’t top that.”

 

In the other one of the youngsters loses control of himself, scrambling and sobbing when they find the body of one of their best fighters.  It’s a credit to the film makers, and the Army, that this was included.

As it is that the current commanding officer’s criticism of the conduct of the previous one is left in.

Beyond the action itself , what elevates Korengal above a good home-movie, spliced together caught-on-the-fly clips, is the use of talking heads, not as usual, of experts or pundits, but of the men themselves, those we are seeing during live action, reflecting on what they have done and seen, and how they’ve changed.  Filmed in Italy after their 15 month deployment, they are filmed close up, warts and all, against a black background, and somber, in take after take.  There isn’t a broad smile in one of them.

They talk about what they felt like in the early days, and then as friends began to die. Some talk about their families, and what they haven’t shared. One particularly interesting fellow, the 50 caliber machine gunner (that’s big) talks about his “hippie parents” in Oregon and that he was never allowed toy guns.  A sergeant says, “it takes a little bit out of you every time one of your boys gets hurt.”  Several talk about the scariest part of the fifteen months, “Operation Rock Avalanche.”

“I saw a lot of professional tough guys get weak in the knees,” says one.

 

A few talk about not being able to sleep after they got home, even with four or five kinds of medication. One hopes he’ll eventually “learn to process it better.”

[In a follow up film, titled Korengal, Junger uses the same men and events to probe deeper into the men’s experiences.  I haven’t seen it yet, but the reviews are similarly favorable.]

There are some confusing edits and sequences.  In the middle of a tension building sequence there is a cut to a video game, shooting up the enemy.  It might have been effective in a different place showing, like the insults and horse-play, how they relax.  As it was, it momentarily seemed a cut to real action.  Another shot is a patrol in the snow.  We don’t know if the seasons have changed or if they are simply higher in the snow capped mountains.  These and a few others put a blip or two in the stream of images, they didn’t disrupt or halt the flow.

Make no mistake.  This is not a movie that investigates the causes, the strategy or high-level decisions that led to American forces being in Afghanistan, or staying there. It is a micro look, and a very good one, of American young men at war. Some of them do ask, why they are there.  A few Afghans are shown — and holding their own– in shuras with the commanding officers of the outposts, but no Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters.  Each viewer will have his or her own reaction, but my initial fears of it being a war-praising movie were not born out.

Afghan Elders, Korengal Valley

Afghan Elders, Korengal Valley

The question I always consider having seen a movie about war is how honestly are the emotions being portrayed?  What would the likely response of a class of seventeen year olds be on seeing it?  Would it act as a recruiting tool, or one of dissuasion?  Would someone having seen it, and then joining the army, feel fully informed?

In this case, yes.  A youngster contemplating joining a fighting unit would get a pretty honest picture of how his age mates experienced their time under fire.  And any of you, elders, advising such a person, would learn a lot is seeing it.

*

Besides the follow up film referred to above, Korengal, Junger has written a related book, drawn from the same experiences, titled War.  From this scathing review it seems that here he has indeed entered into war-praise mode, or perhaps burnished the experience of risk and courage so that the grit and sorrow are not seen.  Too bad.  I don’t think the film does that, and I don’t think, unless I read opinion otherwise, that I’ll get into the book, thanks very much.

 

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