Sundance Review: Restrepo

Sundance is now in full swing and there is so much snow! I’m managing to see the majority of films that I’d been hoping to, so will try and post reviews as and when I can (the wifi availability here is terrible). The first screening I got a chance to see was one of my most anticipated documentaries of the festival (and this year).

Restrepo is a documentary that chronicles the experiences of the men of the Second Platoon who are stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, named the most dangerous place in the world.  Co-directed by Sebastian Junger (Vanity Fair writer and Author of A Perfect Storm) and renowned war photographer Tim Hetherington, who have been working together for a long time combining their skills, Restrepo is their first documentary.

I am very familiar with Tim Hetherington’s work as a photojournalist and was interested to see how his talent transferred to film. Many photographers have crossed over into documentary and always bring an interesting visual take, but occasionally miss the importance of a strong narrative. The strength of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington co-directing is that everything is here. The visuals weren’t as cinematic as I was suspecting, which was actually a welcome surprise. Hetherington’s skills are evident, especially in locked off shots of the valley and outpost but his true skills come through in his ability to gain the trust of the men within the company. During the most intensive fighting he is so close the camera gets hit by shell casing as the soldiers empty rounds and there is no point where you feel that the soldiers are wary of the camera being there whatsoever.

The title of the film comes from the surname of one of the soldiers killed early on in filming and it’s the name the company use to call an outpost they build which becomes the main location of the film. You are introduced to ‘Doc’ Restrepo through home video footage he has taken on the soldiers’ way to Afghanistan and shows them fooling around on a train on the way to their deployment. Within minutes of this transferring to the Korengal Valley we learn that Restrepo has been killed and see the final footage of him whilst under fire. I was initially worried that this was going to be used as a contrived story arc that would give an artificial plot centering around a character that wouldn’t be seen further in the film. Luckily this is far from the case and the plot itself is simply linear and focuses on the soldiers’ experience without trying to give a cinematic roundup. We see some of the same soldiers returning home as the final tie-up of the film and so the plot is simply a chronological look at their experience within the valley which works really well.

The film is devoid of politics and ideology and captures the various ways soldiers cope with being in such a dangerous environment, from below the belt humour to visibly seeing them mourn during heavy fighting, something I have never seen on screen before. Talking head interviews breakup the on location filming and they are incredibly intimate, with the filmmakers using tight close ups and retaining the pauses in dialogue the soldiers needed to get their stories across. It instantly helps gives context to comprehend what they were going through at the time and helps you understand the behaviour you see during their time at Restrepo outpost. The main strength of this film is the trust the filmmakers have gained and it’s a testament to the military to have allowed such a long filming period and level of access. It truly works in their favour as I have never seen an embedded crew manage to really show such an empathetic and informative look at the experience of such a heavy level of combat and army experience.

website and trailer – here