“Restrepo” and the trail of the modern war film

Watching war films really isn’t fun anymore.  When I was young and unaware, war films were a great escape, a jolt of adrenaline, a test of manhood.  I marveled at the gear, the discipline, the bravado, the violence, and the commeraderie.  All the lushness and glamour of being a Soldier, a warrior, fighting an enemy that was unflinchingly evil and menacing, was ripe in my mind.

However, as many of those who have cast the shadow of a Soldier in war will tell you, it’s nothing like what you see in the movies.  Many people have scoffed at what they view as pretension when a veteran says something along the lines of, “you just can’t know unless you’ve been through it.”  It has been a source of irksome conversation in my life for a long time now.

But, it’s not pretension.  It’s not a sense of superiority.  It’s just the truth and there’s only one way to get to that kind of truth; you must live it.

Since Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom began there has been a long string of films and TV shows to try and capture (exploit?) the conflict “over there.”  Most of them up to this point have all taken the path of portraying war, Soldiers, and the conflict itself in a negative light.

Films like Paul Haggis’ “In The Valley of Ellah,” or Brian DePalma’s “Redacted” (possibly the most ignorant of all modern war films) and Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” portray Soldiers at their worst, tipping their hats to the “evil that men do” diatribe.  Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” is a more honest attempt at portraying post-deployment situations, but is clumsy and cliché. Another film that tried to aggrandize the negative aspects of the modern conflict is “Stop Loss,” an exceedingly unrealistic and clichéd portrayal of post-deployment life.  They get every detail wrong and paint a portrait of stereotype, rather than honesty.

Then, we have Matt Damon, an otherwise engaging actor, using his street cred from the Bourne films (along with director Paul Greengrass) to star in “Green Zone,” a liberal fantasyland portrayal of a Soldier out to smack the audience over the head about the wrong path to war (faked intel about WMD’s), which further drives the typical moviegoer into blissfull ignorance about the entire situation, while attempting to disguise itself as a “smart” action film.  It’s not.  It’s a big, dumb, waste.

The phenomenal series from HBO. Put in Netflix Q, time now.

(I have to sneak this in secretly, because this is how it passed through to the rest of the nation.  The first successful adaptation/reproduction of the Iraq conflict is the HBO mini-series “Generation Kill.”  Oh, you never heard of it?  Hmmm, funny.  It arrived and exited with little fanfare and HBO neatly tucked it away with nary a repeat.  Watching it is like reliving it.  Accurate.  Honest.  Genuine.   Okay, let’s sneak back to the story…)

Then along came a little film called “The Hurt Locker,” which presented itself as another “smart” action film from director Kathryn Bigelow (an otherwise true-to-form action director).  Unfortunately, however well made the film is cinematically, it suffers a complete breakdown of communication when it comes to reality and story.  I encourage any EOD member or Soldier who served with them to counter the argument that the film is complete fluff.  And this is what they give Oscars to.  I sat dumbfounded at the news of this film taking home a Best Picture.  Ironically, it is proof positive that the average moviegoer and, especially Hollywood, has no idea what’s really going on.  Hollywood has its head so far up its own ass when it comes to politics, that the answers are no longer sought, but merely milked from one-note sources, as if truth was delivered in a single headline or as snide sarcasm from a comedic performer on cable TV.

The rest of America are idiots, according to Hollywood.  It’s the curse of the East/West coast elitist idealism.  Soldiers are red state rednecks out for blood, because they were too ignorant to go to college and too dangerous to be a part of society.  The same people who regard service members in this light are the same ones who shuck out their time to the mass media of violent movies, TV shows, and video games under the pretense that it’s okay because it’s “not real.”

Damn right it ain’t real.

Real would send these individuals’ pee-pee down their pants leg.

Which brings us to “Restrepo,” the most accurate portrayal and the finest picture into the reality of a real-world deployment in the current conflict in Afghanistan.  It’s a documentary that does not attempt to take a political stance in any way, but merely records the lives of paratroopers during a combat deployment.  “Restrepo” is the G.I.Joe I should have seen when I was twelve, because it’s the antithesis of that world, which planted the seed for my romanticism with the military at such a young age.

If you still want to join the Army and go “all the way” after seeing “Restrepo” then there’s no question about it; you need to do it.  As a veteran, when you see a firefight break out in the film and you see Soldiers maneuvering and firing and calling out orders, the itch takes hold again and if even for a brief second you may wish you were there, taking up position and drawing a bead on the enemy once more.

But, for most, it’s way too sobering and way too real.  A recruiter would shoot himself in the foot if he used “Restrepo” as a recruiting tool.  Either that or he’d validate that he was getting only the most dedicated men to sign up.

“Restrepo” is the product of author/journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who spent 10 months, on and off, with the paratroopers of 2nd Platoon, 173rd Airborne Brigade during their 15-month deployment to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.  Their intent was to film the lives of these men devoid of a political agenda or statement and not once did I ever feel the pressure of a partisan boot on my neck.  The filmmaker’s intent, listed below, is directly from the “Restrepo” website:

The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.

– Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

(L to R) Junger and Hetherington

The documentary follows these men’s lives in a way I can not only relate to, but in a way I can relive.  There is no flashy editing or ominous music underneath.  There are only their experiences, their moments, their voices, and their actions.  Some of them will make sense to the audience and some won’t.  It depends on your own level of understanding and experience.  I have trudged through numerous reviews for the film and read various opinions and reactions to it.  They are as broad and varied as you can get, but they all generally agree that this is a force to be reckoned with.

What compels me most about “Restrepo” are the numerous moments that it brings back the shock and chill of reality in combat, the warm rush of humor in the boredom of it all, and the painful reminder of just how hard the fight is.  Watching Soldiers react to the death of a squad leader and the subsequent onslaught that follows during an ambush is like a hot knife jabbed in your soul, opening the doors to a flood of emotions.

A number of Soldiers provide talking head interviews spread throughout the film, long since the deployment ended, with the cold bucket splash of the experience still dripping off their faces and providing the right amount of balance to the before and after of the Korengal Valley’s grip on them.  These men went through a trial-by-fire, an experience that is rarely matched by any combat vet and their words and expressions let us know as much.

The frustration and boredom, the rights of passage, the barrage of practical jokes, and the general day-to-day are captured in all their true and vibrant glory.  Look no further for the real deal.  “Restrepo” is a peek through the looking glass of modern warfare, absent of the romanticism and bravado of all the predecessors who have fought for that title and lost.  It is instead seeped in the dirt and grime of war-tattered boots on the ground so close that you can smell the burning air and feel the jagged rocks under your feet.

For once, without a fixed narrative, we are allowed to get to know the men who fight.  The same ones who flash onscreen as newsreel b-roll on the nightly news, covered up as a blur behind a well-dressed reporter.  They speak of where they come from, who they are, what propels them, and ultimately, how they deal with what’s in front of them. And the question looms; how will they deal with it afterwards?  There are no answers.

The sting of this film will always grip me.  Today, when I hear a story of Soldiers in combat, their struggle, their losses, their victories, and everything in between, the stories stick to me as if I were there with them.  Because I was.  And I always will be, no matter how far I get away from it.  You can try to leave that life behind, but it won’t leave you.  Ever.

I encourage all vets to see this film, to relive it.  I encourage their spouses, their families, their loved ones to see it as well.  Too often, we as vets forget that while we have had this profound, moving, and often heartbreaking experience, those close to us yearn to be a part of it with us, to understand it in all its complexity.  Most of the time they just don’t know how.  “Restrepo” can help ignite those conversations and coax the experience into words for those uninformed.

When the credits rolled and I slowly made my way out of the theater I ran into one of my company’s platoon leaders from my last deployment to Iraq.  I hadn’t seen him in at least a year or two and there he was, sitting with his wife, dressed in civilian clothes.  We shook hands and were immediately drawn into conversation.  We said nothing about the film, instead catching up on those we’d seen recently from the company and what everyone is up to.

Recently, one of our platoon leaders from that same deployment, a close friend to both of us, had been killed in Afghanistan.  I asked if he’d heard the news and he said he hadn’t.  The irony of me breaking the news to him after watching “Restrepo” was another reminder of a Soldier’s bond, a connection forged in fire on foreign soil, and the harsh burn of lost comrades.  Suddenly, we were both back there, back in the moment, back in full gear, about to go on patrol, our guts twisted and our minds teetering on the mission ahead.

It brought me back to a moment we shared in late 2006, wrapping up a daylong mission down a treacherous road where we’d been blown up and shot at steadily throughout the day.  I had been waiting on a particular spot in my HMMWV for about an hour.  My platoon leader friend had jumped in my vehicle as we prepared to roll out, but was called away again.  He exited the vehicle and minutes later we were moving forward.  As we began to drive, clearing the spot we’d been waiting in, an IED went off, leaving a hole in the earth we’d just been occupying.

Maybe that IED would have done no damage.  Maybe it would have killed my platoon leader friend had he stayed in the vehicle.  Maybe it would have killed us both.  We’ll never know.  But, the moment exists, a snapshot in our lives, just as “Restrepo” is a snapshot into those Soldier’s lives.  Fading memories of another life.

While driving home, my wife seemed quiet and lost in thought.   After awhile she said, “I feel like there’s this whole other side of you I’ll never know.”

She was right.

7 Responses to “Restrepo” and the trail of the modern war film

  1. Brian H September 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm #

    I loved Generation Kill. Wish more people would discover it.

    I really wanted to see Restrepo so I’m glad to see you give it good marks.

    The site looks great by the way!

    • Paul Shirey September 25, 2010 at 12:51 am #

      Thanks, B! Spread the word on “Generation Kill.”

  2. RobertM September 25, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Great write up. I enjoyed the assessments of the ‘credible’ recent films – I would agree with them all. Am living next to an EOD officer right now, and when I mentioned ‘Hurt Locker’, his face grimaced as i thought it might. I am going to watch Restrepo and thanks to your write-up, I will take Kim to it as well.

    • Paul Shirey September 25, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

      Mentioning “Hurt Locker” to anyone that is currently EOD or has served with them generally gets a much-deserved eye roll. Thanks for your comments. I think you will get a lot out of “Restrepo.”

  3. Katie Groller October 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    Besides watching Generation Kill, I recommend picking up the book it was based on. Fascinating. And the more I read from the writer the more fascinating I found it. Truly a great read. And a great watch

    • Paul Shirey October 5, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

      I have heard this from multiple people. Although I haven’t read the book, I always try to redirect people interest in the subject from the bullshit to the real shit, and Generation Kill fits that bill, both in print (I’m positive) and definitely on film.

  4. Sean Cooper November 11, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Thank you.

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