This weekend, I found myself unexpectedly outside of my mid-sized Alabama town and in Dallas, Texas. While looking for things to do to fill out this unanticipated trip, I noticed that Restrepo, a documentary about an infantry platoon's year in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, was playing. The film has been in limited release and as much as I've wanted to see it, it hasn't played anywhere near me.
Restrepo captures both the misery and the absurdity of combat better than any war film ever seen. If you have yet to see Restrepo, here is your fair warning that you should expect nothing short of a masterpiece. For those who do have experience in combat, be sure you are emotionally and mentally in a place to watch the most realistic depiction of combat you've ever seen, outside of being there yourself.
For me, Restrepo held personal relevance. During the same period that 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2-503rd was in the Korengal Valley, my battalion was at Jalallabad attached to their higher headquarters. We also sent guys into the Korengal and while I didn't personally know anyone from the documentary, there were faces I recognized as guys who came back to J-Bad for resupply or other purposes. There were moments in the film I remember happening back then, like Operation Rock Avalanche and the mass-cas incident with 2-503rd's C Company.
I can't lie, with my personal attachment to the events in the film, it may have been the hardest film to watch that I've ever seen. There were more than a few moments that I sat in my theater seat biting my bottom lip and holding down the lump in my throat. My fellow VetVoice blogger Kate Hoit (an Iraq war Veteran who posted her own review here) sent me a text after I got out asking if I plan on seeing it again. I said I don't know if I can. No, Restrepo is not an easy film to watch. It is, however, a fiercely important film to watch.
As Kate mentioned in her review, Restrepo does not have a political aim. It doesn't paint Soldiers as mythical heros. It doesn't try to convince you that Afghanistan isn't worth winning, neither does it attempt to persuade that it is a worthy fight. If Restrepo had attempted to do any of those things it would have been of exponentially lesser quality than the film I saw this weekend.
Often, when I'm asked about what it was like being in Afghanistan by civilians, I tell them it was the most fun I ever had being miserable. That probably sounds ridiculous to anyone who has never been deployed, but those who have know exactly what I mean. Yeah, being deployed sucks. It really sucks. But you also develop loyalty and camaraderie with a group of fellow Soldiers who become your only family, and involve yourselves in some of the most ridiculous activities imaginable just to maintain sanity. Yeah, my deployment was RPG's flying over my head, not showering for weeks at a time, and carrying a flag-draped coffin onto a C-17. But it was also making professional wrestling style championship belts out of PT belts for our nightly dominos game and blasting the chosen theme song for who ever won the game on a given evening.
That's what combat was like for me, and that is what you see in Restrepo. What's sad is that while the film did take the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it won't even have an outside shot at Best Picture at the Oscars here in America. Last year, as you'll remember, a "war movie" that billed itself as an accurate depiction of combat, yet had no basis in reality whatsoever, took that award. The Hurt Locker is a children's cartoon compared to Restrepo.
Restrepo's brilliance lies in it's simplicity, even though the subject matter is not simple at all. It's a fifteen-month view of the face of Soldiers at war, packed into 90 minutes. It's raw. It's real. It's what anyone who asks the "what's it like question" should see for their answer, and what those of us who already know that answer should see as well.
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