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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
In the Watch-Fires of a Hundred Circling Camps
by Donald Levit

Avoidance of advocacy or political slant is an avowed aim in Restrepo--hence, no narrator or interviewer voice--but in the current climate, it is useless to expect apolitical response. Alongside Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Reid at the Lincoln Center HRW Film Festival, co-director/-producer/-cinematographer Tim Hetherington was bombarded with questions about strategy, conditions and (somewhat angrily) policy rather than filmmaking processes.

Commentary “glue” is supplied, not by relatives at home or officers on the spot but by the subject soldiers themselves in fashionable unnecessarily close shots at the military unit’s Italian base three months later. For this surprisingly uncensored directorial début, Hetherington and Sebastian Junger each had a camera and shot at individual discretion. During five trips each over a year on magazine and news network assignment, the two became a familiar sight to and part of the 173 Airborne Brigade Battle Company, partaking of hardship and heartbreak, perils and camaraderie, everything except guard duty and shooting.

Automatic fire sounding like pops, this real-action vérité is as tense as the beachhead sequence of Saving Private Ryan and all the more emotional in that these are not actors in recreation. Seemingly captured by cameras on troops’ helmets, here is the intensity of mortal combat against unseen enemies, even if U.S. wounded and dead are talked of more than seen and there are but few frames of collateral casualties.

Taliban reputedly infiltrate Afghanistan from Pakistan through narrow northeastern Korengal Valley, where twenty percent of confrontations occur. Here, fifteen men of the Second Battalion are dispatched to dig, sandbag, prepare, defend and scout from an outpost two hours distant from the firebase. It is christened in honor of the group’s charismatic medic, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, shown joyful in amateur video but later shot twice through the neck and bleeding to death in an evacuation copter. Chillingly calling up now-desolate Khe Sanh Combat Base, the rudimentary hilltop point is their home for the duration, from which patrols and forays depart and to which light-eyed dyed-red-bearded village patriarchs are summoned for information and public relations at shura.

Gut-fear is filmically palpable beneath macho posturing and obscenity-laced banter and, among others, in the intercalated headshots. Sgt. Miguel Cortez smiles nervously that sedatives have not eased his post-trauma nightmares. Jumpiness lurks everywhere, above blaring music or in interrogating locals or in a minutes’ silence for fallen comrades of another unit.

Since this is in holding action not promising victory or defeat, advance or retreat, without exterior narrative impetus the direction is vertical as opposed to horizontal, which is to say, “story” not going from point A to B to C, continuity lies largely in the later reflections of participants. From eighteen to twenty-four at the time, they do not at all consider why their country is there, and their reasons for serving do not seem to embrace blind patriotism or escape from dead-end boring lives at home. In fact, despite the reported four or five daily attacks against O.P. Restrepo, the monotony of killing time comes through as a major ingredient of their posting.

Names and faces slightly interchangeable in spite of clear printed titles, some grunts nevertheless are distinguished from the rest, if hard to pinpoint in the action sequences. Not always clear as to who is who, we come to know the men through their confessional revelations and, importantly, to realize that, not gung-ho war movie slogans but the hard-wired survival instinct gets them through. While the technology of war has evolved, the essential, the individual dogface and his group, is as unchanged as mankind itself. Like Crane’s Henry Fleming “touch[ing] the great death,” Spec. Misha Pemble matures in this often-called rite of passage but, a far cry from the traditional screen hero, scarred for life.

“Time to move on.” But another “still hasn’t figured how to deal with it [and] will never forget but needs to process it differently. It’s made me appreciate everything that I have.”

(Released by National Geographic Entertainment and rated "R" for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.)

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