NOTE: I posted this without knowing that Restrepo's co-director, Tim Hetherington, had been killed in Libya. My Sicilian grandfather, who was sent to fight in World War I, told me he never killed anyone. "I had no argument with those men," he said, "but they wanted me to shoot. So I shot over the Germans' heads, and everybody was happy." My prayer for Mr. Hetherington and his family and friends is that we should all be so happy. In the meantime, I am sure that everyone who knew him will keep his name in their mouths, "familiar as household words," and "in their flowing cups freshly remembered."
In Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington go to Afghanistan and stick close to, as the Internet Movie Database informs with its usual completeness, "The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team." And watching them dig in, goof around, freak out, sing and cry and stare into space, I found myself caught between the reality that movies insist on and the one I'll never see--and how, as with scenes of active combat, the two of them are so often the same. That is, what I know of combat I know from the movies--but this is not a "movie" (or a TV series, like the excellent Generation Kill); it's a "documentary."
But watching Restrepo is like watching Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead or The Hurt Locker--even Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, as extravagant as those movies are. Restrepo engenders an interesting confusion: Does it look like a fictional film because I've seen so many, or is it Restrepo's actual soldiers who've seen the same films and have learned how to behave? This may simply be the most hair-raising home movie ever made--you know how you get when someone turns on the camera at the family get-together: one is "on," so one "acts"--up, usually.
But I don't think that's necessarily what happens in Restrepo--actually, I think it's the opposite: the movies have clouded our vision of the real horror and boredom of warfare, and Restrepo brings us face to face with our seen-that-even-though-I-haven't-done-that smugness. This is so much The Real Deal that even that expression sounds phony--as phony as a non-combatant's "understanding" that War Is Hell. The triumph of Restrepo is that it ignores us, chooses instead to let itself be itself. We're just along for the ride, so we better stay out of the way when the shit starts to fly.