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Film Review


In 2007 and 2008, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington became embedded with an infantry platoon (about 30-35 men) in order to produce a film about the American experience in Afghanistan. Junger, well known for his nonfiction account (The Perfect Storm) of the sinking of a fishing trawler, became interested in reporting on the Afghan War. Hetherington was an experienced war photographer. Both joined the platoon at an isolated observation post in the Korengal Valley in north east Afghanistan for a year, filming the platoon and some of its patrols. The small outpost, on a mountain spur overlooking a village, could only be supplied by air as the Taliban controlled the countryside. The outpost was named Restrepo, in memory of a beloved medic who was killed shortly after arriving. Restrepo was often under fire and patrols faced constant danger. The outpost was established at this location in order to attempt to interdict the flow of arms from Pakistan to the Taliban. The village itself seemed to have no tactical or strategic importance and the villagers were caught between both sides, simply trying to survive. In the four and a half years that Restrepo existed, 42 Americans died in the Korengal, and many more were wounded. Junger and Hetherington shared the danger and hardships for a year with the platoon, and shot hundreds of hours of often extraordinary footage. From this they produced a powerful documentary, Restrepo, that screened in 2010 and won a number of awards, including an Oscar nomination for best documentary film. Sadly, Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 while covering the revolution in Libya.

Now, using more of their original footage plus lengthy interviews, Junger alone has finished a second film, Korengal, which is essentially a sequel to Restrepo. It has less combat action and much more reflection on the war and its human costs. Korengal opens with an interview with one of the men, then the outpost being blown up, abandoned after those largely fruitless four years as an observation post and platoon base. As in the Restrepo film, much of the footage is cinema verite style, with no narration. Some footage shows fighting, and with long stretches of boredom, leading to horseplay, joking, and the things that soldiers do. There is definitely no PX here, not even running water, often under fire, so it really is a hardship post. It's cold in the winter, roofs leak when it rains, and everyone lives in a bunker. The mountain setting is beautiful and one man remarks that "it could be Colorado Springs and a sports heaven if they stopped shooting at you". Patrolling is grueling, with men having to climb steep rocky trails with 60 pound kits and heavy weapons. The company commander says that 15 men broke their ankles in a year. As at all isolated posts, mail and packages are a joyous event, especially here. Some mug for the camera occasionally, but most simply accept and ignore it. What Junger does here beyond his first film is to interview many of the soldiers while at Restrepo and after their return to civilian life. Their faces fill the screen, a format powerful in itself. The men describe their feelings about patriotism, heroism, duty, and the strong bonds of friendship that are difficult for civilians to understand. This is strong stuff. One Pfc says that he would gladly die for his friends, and you know that is no exaggeration. These men risk their lives for the others in the platoon, not for country or honor. No one wants to be responsible for someone else's death because they made a mistake or were careless. There is constant tension, especially before patrols. Others describe the excitement of firefights, especially when none of the platoon gets hurt, and the thrill of being able to kill someone. Another says he hates hearing: "You did what you had to do". He says in fact he had a choice. "I chose to go into the Army, I chose to go Airborne……."

All of them miss the camaraderie that develops among men who have lived closely together for long periods in dangerous or hard situations. Surprisingly, there is only one black soldier in the platoon, and although he is proud of his service, he laments that some of the other men don't like him because he is black. But he says none would ever say that out loud and all want him alongside in a firefight. Other than the absence of black soldiers, the platoon is an ethnic cross section of America: white, Hispanic and Asian. Statistically, some are probably gay, but the film doesn't broach this. In one segment soldiers rhapsodize about their weapons and their killing power. There is a moving interview with the first sergeant, who describes the death of the battalion sergeant major's son. All speak of a great sense of pride in belonging, and a sadness at no longer being part of something powerfully fulfilling when back in civilian life. Some say that you could not understand unless you were there. I could not agree more. Nearly all describe their civilian life as empty and lacking the intensity of life at Restrepo. One says he would go back in a minute. Near the end of the film Junger shows the moving ceremony to memorialize Pfc Juan Restrepo, with the platoon in formation, and the platoon sergeant calling his name three times. Each man always tells the others what music he wants at his service, and Restrepo's choice was Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. It plays as the men dance around.

This film could not have been made prior to high definition portable digital video cameras. Since the footage at the outpost was often shot under difficult conditions we often notice drops of water or dirt on the lens, which gives an even greater sense of being there. His film is well edited and the original music strong with steel string guitars. Junger has crafted an immensely powerful and important film, one that should be seen by every member of Congress. This is not a downer film but it is a window into a world far removed from most of us. Korengal is easily one of the best documentary films that I have seen this year, and surely will, like Restrepo, be an Oscar nominee.

Now that we no longer have a draft and depend upon a volunteer army, the disconnect between most Americans and the armed forces is greater than ever. Less than two percent of Americans have direct contact with the armed forces, and those on active duty tend to be overwhelmingly from poor and working class families. This is not healthy for any democracy. Further, it seems clear that the veterans' health care system is dysfunctional, to say the least. We sent these men to fight and we owe them much more. Freedom isn't free, but now only this tiny minority pay the real price. It's free for the rest of us. As any veteran knows, I would be remiss if I did not give the full name of this platoon: Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Division. Just opened at Opera Plaza and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Screening time: 84 minutes.

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