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Sweet Escape

Outpost Restrepo.  

Kids will love Toy Story 3 for its cliff-hangers and slapstick spills. But for grown-ups, the film will touch something deeper: the heartfelt wish that childhood memories will never fade. This lovely, wistful movie weaves together our joyful fantasies of the past, the ones that helped form us, and our darker fears of being forgotten—and offers hope that we can somehow reconcile those poles of existence for ourselves. The slight autumnal chill makes the warmth of summer all the sweeter.

The documentary Restrepo is set in an alien world and has a touch of the surreal, but it’s the furthest extreme from escapism. In 2007, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (the best-selling writer) got themselves embedded with Battle Company’s Second Platoon, the “tip of the spear” in the remote Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan, in makeshift hillside outposts not far from the mountains of Pakistan. Hetherington and Junger shot the film themselves and kept their cameras going during the frequent firefights, although this isn’t what you’d call smooth cinematography: You can feel the fight-or-flight instincts in how their cameras swerve and point at the ground or the sky. Experiencing their terror vicariously, you might wish they were holding weapons instead of cameras.

The film is a nearly unrelenting nightmare. Even interviews shot with the survivors after the fact have a current of dread. It opens with rollicking video of the company medic, Restrepo, as he sits on a train and drunkenly shouts, “We’re goin’ to war! We’re goin’ to war!” The larger-than-life Restrepo’s large life ended with two bullets in the neck; he bled out on a helicopter. The new, scarily exposed outpost is, like the film, named in his honor. But this is a place where no foreign force will likely gain the upper hand. Although we’re told that roughly 70 percent of the ordnance in Afghanistan is deployed in the battalion’s area of operations, the landscape from a distance appears unmarked, the bombs absorbed by the same trees and terraced hills that hide the Taliban—who are never actually seen. Monkeys howl as the men gaze into those trees through gun sights, their most trivial exchanges seeming, in this context, momentous. Every other word is “fuck.” The pressure shows.

Restrepo isn’t all scenes of life on the outpost. The earnest new captain, Kearney, often trudges into the small, impoverished village below to meet with the Korengali elders. They stare at him, expressionless, their beards dyed orange, as he tells them, via a translator, that he’s different from his predecessor, that he won’t round up their families and send them to Bagram for interrogation: “Join with the government and I’ll flood this whole place with money, with projects … ” Then seven civilians are killed (and small children wounded) and whatever hearts and minds were in play (probably not many) are lost.

Restrepo is, on its own terms, a stunning piece of work, but to get even more from it you should buy Junger’s book, WAR, which expands on the footage we see, adding world history and personal history and vivid detail, including sections on the neurochemistry of soldiers under fire. I could end this review with a pronouncement about how supposed war movies like The A-Team cheapen and demean the courage of these soldiers—but I’m not sure they wouldn’t enjoy the break from reality. In one scene, we see a soldier playing a war video game and enjoying himself. It’s clearly wonderful to find a place to put all that adrenaline and to understand, for once, the rules of engagement.