Documentaries are often criticized for having an agenda, for fudging facts to support a point of view or for presenting a less-than-truthful version of the events they record. Well, if Restrepo has an agenda—apart from presenting a year in the lives of a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan—I am unable to detect it. Apart from the inevitable choices of what is shown and what isn’t shown, the only points of view expressed in Restrepo are those of the soldiers themselves, not the filmmakers. The results are uncomfortable and occasionally harrowing in their realism—and utterly compelling.
In a lot of ways, Restrepo is less a documentary than it is photojournalism done with video cameras. It has the same kind of immediacy. This is “you are there” filmmaking of a kind rarely seen. I’m not even sure I’ve seen anything quite like it—and it’s not something I’d like a steady diet of, which is by no means a criticism. Rather, it’s the kind of experience that I think should be rare to avoid the pitfall of numbing viewers into a sense of complacency about it. It should be shocking. It should be horrifying. It should be visceral. The last thing a film like Restrepo needs is to become normalized.
Conceptually, it’s very simple. The filmmakers—and by extension the viewer (albeit from a safer, more comfortable seat)—spend 15 months with a platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, where it’s hoped the platoon can gain a hold in this dangerous area rife with hidden Taliban. The platoon manages to build an outpost they name Restrepo after Juan “Doc” Restrepo, a well-liked medic killed in the early days of their mission. What the filmmakers capture is interspersed with interview footage of the soldiers discussing their experience. It’s sometimes hard to tell which is the rawer: the actual footage or the nakedness of the interviews. The immediacy of the war footage is certainly powerful, but the interviews are so candid, unaffected and honest that it’s a tough call.
I don’t want to describe too much of the film, since I think it ought to be experienced from as uncolored a perspective as possible. I’ll go this far: You’re shown every aspect of the lives of these soldiers. It’s all there—the tedium, the camaraderie, the bravery, the frustration, the anger—and it’s often not pretty, but it ought to be seen in all its unvarnished impact. If there’s a flaw in the approach—and I think this is a minor one—it lies in the understandably respectful reticence to show anything too graphic. Rated R for language throughout, including some descriptions of violence.