Opening July 23 at Lagoon Cinema, “Restrepo” (Rated R), is a documentary film from National Geographic Entertainment and Outpost Films that chronicles the one-year deployment of a platoon of American soldiers at one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. Filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger deployed with the unit on a remote 15-man outpost, “Restrepo,” considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military.
This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 94-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.
From May 2007 to July 2008, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed in the remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. The soldiers of Second Platoon built and manned a remote and strategic outpost that they named “Restrepo,” named for Private First Class Juan S. Restrepo, 20, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, a platoon medic who was killed in action.
The unit included Captain Dan Kearney, Master Sergeant Lamonta Caldwell; Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice; Sgt. Mish C. Pemble-Belkin; Sgt. Kyle M. Steiner; Staff Sgt. Aron J. Hijar; Staff Sgt. Joshua A. McDonough; Sgt. Brendan C. O’Byrne; Sgt. Miguel Cortez; Sgt. Sterling J. Jones; Staff Sgt. Larry I. Rougle.
This is their story, in their words, of a group of men who came be considered the “tip of the spear” for America efforts in that area.
“This is reality,” state Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger in the film notes. “The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves.
“Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates,” they added. “Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality.
In the past five years the Korengal Valley – a rugged valley six miles long near the border with Pakistan – has become an epicenter of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It was considered to be a crucial relay point for Taliban fighters moving from Pakistan toward Kabul, and several top Al Qaeda leaders were thought to have used it as a base of operations.
In 2005, Taliban fighters cornered a four-man Navy SEAL team in the Korengal and killed three of them, then shot down a helicopter that was sent to save them. All sixteen American commandos on board died. By the end of 2007, almost one fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan was taking place in the Korengal. The fighting was on foot and it was deadly, and the zone of American control moved hilltop by hilltop, ridge by ridge, a hundred yards at a time. There was literally no safe place in the Korengal; men have been shot while asleep in their barracks. To date, close to fifty American soldiers have lost their lives there.
Starting in June 2007, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger dug in with the men of Second Platoon, making a total of ten trips to the Korengal on assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine and ABC News. Each trip started with a helicopter flight into the main firebase in the valley and then a two-hour foot patrol out to Restrepo.
There was no running water at Restrepo, no internet, no phone communication, and for a while, there was no electricity or heat; it was essentially just sandbags and ammo. Some days the outpost was attacked three or four times from distances as close as fifty yards.
Hetherington and Junger – sometimes working together, sometimes alone – did everything the soldiers did except pull guard duty and shoot back during firefights. They slept alongside the soldiers, ate with them, survived the boredom and the heat and the cold and the flies with them, went on patrol with them, and eventually came to be considered virtually part of the platoon. By the end of the deployment, they had shot a total of 150 hours of combat, boredom, humor, terror, and daily life at the outpost.
Conditions for filmmaking couldn’t have been harsher. The surrounding mountains rose to a height of 10,000 feet – all of which was traversed on foot. Long operations meant carrying enough camera batteries to last a week or more, on top of the fifty or so pounds of gear required on even ordinary patrols. Cameras got smashed into rocks, clogged with dirt and hit with shell cartridges during firefights.
Men were killed and wounded during filming, so there was a constant issue of when it was okay to turn on the cameras and when it was not. Only the filmmakers’ close relationship to the men of the platoon allowed them to keep shooting in situations where other journalists might have been told to stop.
Three months after the end of the deployment, Hetherington and Junger traveled to Vicenza, Italy, where the unit is based. They used two Veri-Cams, a full light and sound package, and two cameramen to conduct in-depth interviews with their main characters.
These interviews – initially considered a kind of glue for the verité, and a way to avoid outside narration – wound up being some of the most powerful and affecting material of the entire project. The soldiers were able to allow themselves a level of emotion and introspection that is simply not possible in combat.
Hetherington and Junger hired acclaimed editor Michael Levine (Billy the Kid, My Kid Could Paint That) and associate editor Maya Mumma to help them put the film together at Goldcrest Post. John Battsek and Nick Quested joined the team as executive producers on the project. The edit lasted ten months and was closely supervised by both filmmakers. RESTREPO is Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s directorial debut.
Junger’s time with the men of Second Platoon is also the subject of his recently released book “WAR,” by Twelve, a division of the Hachette Book Group. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “riveting… an unforgettable portrait of men under fire.”