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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Photographer Reviews "Restrepo"

I met Linda Covello when I worked at Newsweek and she was shooting for cover stories about American kids. She is first and foremost a portrait photographer with a great connection to people and their environment. Linda is also a serious film buff, and after talking to her about Restrepo, the award-winning film from photographer Tim Hetherington and writer Sebastian Junger, I asked her to write about her feelings.

I saw 'Restrepo' last week and the thought kept running through my head " how the hell did Junger and Hetherington have the courage to film this insanity?"

As I watched the film unfold I was alternately jarred, shaken, shocked and frightened by the scenes of mortar fire, sniper shots and ordnance raining from above. The film opens with the Humvee Junger is filming in hitting an I.E.D. and the explosion shatters the usual complacency one feels as an audience member in a darkened theater. As all visibility through the windshield of the vehicle is obliterated by mud, rocks, and other debris and the suddenly very unnerved voices of the occupants fills the soundtrack, my heart rate sped up uncomfortably as I remembered "this is real."

The brave dudes on the screen are not a cast of characters in a James Cameron film, and that camera is held by a journalist, Sebastian Junger, whose life is at risk in the making of this incredible documentary about a platoon's tour of duty in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

As a photographer watching the film I could not help obsessing about the courage of the two filmmakers as well as reviewing my own terrible fear at the idea of finding myself in such a situation. NFW would I want to be there.

I am always inspired by the work of the great war documentarians; the viscerality and temporality of life is so profound in the strongest examples of this discipline. Yet I myself am not moved to pack my Canons and board an airlift for such a desolate and terrifying place as the treacherous mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.

What the two have accomplished with this remarkable piece of film making is to demonstrate unequivocally the terror and surreality of war for the young men and women who enlist to serve our country, as well as the courage, loyalty, commitment and deep love that develops between brothers at arms.

Directors like Coppola, Kubrick or Stone present the facts of war filtered through the perspective of a cinematic auteur, and you can deduce through each line of dialog and staged scene what might be the ideas, beliefs, and opinions of the director or screenwriter. The dialog of 'Restrepo' is not scripted.

The scenes before us are not created by an Academy award-winning production designer. Those buff and tattooed young men will not be posing in a sexy group shot for the next Vanity Fair Young Hollywood cover. And aside from finding cover the next time shots fill the air and shatter the branches of the trees overhead, whatever Junger and Hetherington are thinking about all this is nowhere present in this documentary. You barely ever hear them and do not see them at all. This film belongs to Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne.

These guys are portrayed as exactly what they are: macho, video game playing, at times lewd and sensitive, just out of their teens boys being boys. They sit around their outpost playing guitar, looking at surf magazines and doing their best to maintain a semblance of security for themselves between constant and unpredictable blasts from RPGs and sniper fire from the enemy, who are expertly hidden in the treacherous terrain surrounding their lone outpost. This stubborn encampment is the hard won piece of real estate that platoon has defiantly staked out for itself on the cliffs of the Korengal Valley. In the words of Captain Dan Kearney, it is like a big middle finger aimed at the enemy.

Prior to them climbing out of that valley they were like fish in a barrel for the insurgents hiding in the crevices and cliffs of the mountains surrounding the Korengal. By battling their way up that mountain and building that outpost, named O.P. Restrepo for the medic Juan 'Doc' Restrepo who is killed at the beginning of the film, they give themselves an advantage over the enemy that not only instills fear in the insurgents, but creates a stronger confidence in the platoon.

The film is a blend of the humorous and the ridiculous, the satirical and the tragic. In one scene a young soldier, apparently just back from leave, is attempting to position a massive gun in a window overhanging a perilous cliff. As he carefully climbs on the ledge to secure the gun, his radio beeps and he reaches to respond to it. The voice on the other end is looking for banter and engages the young soldier in an innocuous conversation about his recent tour home on leave. The soldier returns to his dangerous task with the gun as the voice on the other side of the radio persists on with questions about what his home is like and makes an allusion to the ranch the soldier lives on and hunts on back home being similar to the Korengal except "here we shoot people". This is only one example of the serendipitous and unscripted moments in 'Restrepo' that give this film its surreal and satirical dimension.

Another of these moments comes when Captain Dan Kearney holds one of his weekly pow wows with the village elders to discuss the progress of a road that is being built to connect the people of the province to the outside world, which is the ostensible point of the military presence in the Korengal. The elders, with their brightly hennaed beards, kohl rimmed eyes and talon-like hands heavy with rings and prayer beads, look almost like cartoon characters from Disney's animation archive. As they sit on the dirt floor of the hut while a translator recites Kearney's instructions and requests regarding the continued cooperation in the building of this road, the camera pans the faces of these men. They seem bored, out of it or high on some mountain herb, but the last thing they appear is interested in Uncle Sam's road project or his young and earnest representative's promises of great amounts of money and economic security the road will provide.

Later in the film three of these elders approach the O.P. in the hopes of receiving some of those promised dollars as restitution for a cow that has been slaughtered by the platoon. The soldier in charge of this exchange is informed by the brass at base camp that will be a no can do. The disgusted and defeated looks in the eyes of these ancient Afghans speaks volumes as to what their true estimation is of Uncle Sam and his representative's presence in their country.

After an aerial attack by an Apache helicopter on a village housing insurgents, the soldiers take a tour through the rubble of a house where civilian men and children have just been killed. Captain Kearney discusses his opinions about this unfortunate collateral damage in tones that are matter of fact and seemingly devoid of emotion. But he is a pivotal and strong figure in this
drama. When the camera focuses on his face in extreme close up he discusses these events from a distance after returning home from the Korengal and all the withheld compassion, humanity and feeling do battle under his brow and jaw.

A few of the platoon members talk about their experiences in the Korengal Valley in this close up setting. The camera is tight on their faces as they recount the events they and their platoon mates survived. It is so close, in fact, that a nerve twitching uncontrollably in the eye of Aron Hijar gives away the intensity of the emotion he is dealing with as he talks about the harrowing details of his time in the Korengal Valley.

This film should be required viewing by every American. This sentiment is expressed by many who have commented on the Internet after viewing 'Restrepo'.

I had a vision of it being broadcast on every TV set in America with rapt Americans watching and listening just as they must have when Orson Welles broadcast 'The War of the Worlds' in 1938. The scene where a soldier bawls his eyes out and drops to his knees before a fallen comrade is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever witnessed in a darkened theater.

The great war photojournalist Robert Capa said "If your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough". Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are close enough.

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Anonymous Florio said...

Absolute must see doc' on the realities of being a grunt in Afghanistan....

September 08, 2010  
Anonymous Ed Hamlin said...

I have a lot of respect for these two men armed only with camera and support gear. They are not trained soldiers that know how to identifiy hazards to protect themselves from death. Cudos.

September 30, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey - I am certainly happy to find this. cool job!

May 24, 2011  

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