Monday, December 27, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'Restrepo'

Three thoughts about 'Restrepo,' coming up after the trailer:

• This movie is a documentary about the life of an American Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007. Americans weren't paying as much attention to Afghanistan at that point: Iraq was consuming most of our attention. But the war there was every bit as real and intense for these soldiers; the combat footage is some of the most harrowing I've ever seen -- not unflinching, exactly, because we're not shown much of actual death or wounds, but it does walk right up to the line of what American viewers will find acceptable in depicting combat deaths. It is devastating.

• Watching 'Restrepo,' though, I realized how much of my understanding of war is generally shaped by war movies, and because of that by the language of Hollywood generally. There were several moments throughout the documentary that I thought were foreshadowing an imminent violent death -- because that's how those moments would've been used in a Hollywood production. 'Restrepo' eschewed such tricks, for the most part: If violent death was coming, it used its narrators -- soldiers from the unit, reflecting on their experiences months later in studio interviews, from the relative safety of an Army base in Italy -- to tell us precisely what was coming. Only then were we shown. 

• The movie's most emblematic character is Capt. Dan Kearney, leader of the squad that we follow. He arrives in Afghanistan looking a bit dim but well-intentioned -- he tells viewers he read nothing about the Korengal Valley before deploying there, because he wanted to approach the problems there "with an open mind" -- intending to do the "nice guy" work of counterinsurgency: meeting weekly with local elders, promising jobs and building projects in exchange for their help. By the end, though, the intentions have gone awry: He tells the gathering of elders he doesn't give a fuck about their protests of the arrest of a local man they say is innocent of anti-American activity. He can't claim any real victories during his time in Afghanistan, so he talks about "changing the dynamics" of what is clearly still a deadly place for American troops.

And one can't help feel, as Kearney makes regular promises of future "progress" to Afghan elders, that the elders aren't all that interested in the kind of progress he clearly intends to be an enticement to their cooperation. There's a memorable line in "Full Metal Jacket" -- there's Hollywood war again -- that inside every enemy fighter is an American trying to scratch its way out. Forty years have passed since the war depicted in that movie, but there are moments in 'Restrepo' that suggest American hubris hasn't been tempered too much in the decades since. That's not what 'Restrepo' is about, though: It's about the daily horror experienced by the men who serve that hubris. Perhaps fittingly, the movie's happy ending is when our soldiers finally get to leave Afghanistan.

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