Korangal Valley or the “Valley of Death”, as it’s called by the American Forces, is home to more than a dozen villages built into the rocky faces of the mountains. It’s nicknamed so because the stationed troops get into at least one fire fight per day. “It was a hell hole,” said Specialist Miguel Cortez when he first saw the Korengal Outpost in early 2007. This valley is also the setting of the movie, Restrepo, directed by American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington.
Restrepo is not the conventional war documentary. It lacks the politicization of war and the back story. It doesn’t even indicate the filmmakers or the subjects’ ideology. It’s a simple re-telling of the 15 month deployment of the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Valley.
Watching the movie, it’s evident that Junger and Hetherington got very close to the soldiers they were documenting. They have intimate scenes of the soldiers goofing around in their downtime, grieving over the dead and just trying to maintain their sense of normalcy when faced with active combat. They are not nameless, faceless men laying down their lives for the country. I also wonder about the risks and dangers faced by the two journalists. In the beginning itself the Humvee they are riding in goes over an I.E.D. and overturns. They were both also present during Operation Rock Avalanche, when the platoon had been outflanked and was under fire from all directions.
The main characters, according to me were Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, raised in a hippie household but who was slowly growing trigger happy; Specialist Miguel Cortez who smiles while he talks about his friends dying but suffers from nightmares; Staff Sergeant Joshua McDonough who wonders how he will readjust to life back in the U.S. and claiming that the country had no clue how to handle people like them, who had seen active combat everyday; Captain Dan Kearney, the planner who uses aggression to make his way into the Valley; and Pfc. Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo, the medic and guitar player who makes his appearance only in the beginning of the movie.
You never really see Doc Restrepo on screen. He is one of the faces in the pub crawl and doesn’t really stand out. But as a viewer, you understand his importance in the group when they honor him by naming the outpost after him. The movie also comes full circle when the soldiers who were initially unhappy with the outpost being called Restrepo felt that the name fit the place after some time.
But I also think, the filmmakers should have included Staff Sergeant Salvatore Augustine Giunta who became the first living person since Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery during Operation Rock Avalanche. They had him on tape, but they didn’t use it in the final movie.
The movie is raw and uncensored about what the soldiers face in the field. There’s lots of swearing, guns and ammunitions, and never do you see the face of the enemy, whether dead or alive. That’s one thing, I feel they should have shown. Also you get the feel of how desolate that area is. You see the soldiers slowly changing over a period of time. Specialist Belkin wants his target to be closer so that he can see it being blown up and Specialist Cortez who uses a cocktail of sleeping pills because he “prefer not to sleep, not dream about.”
As an afterthought, had the movie been aired in India, all the swearing would definitely have been beeped out.
As a viewer I could understand the “fish in a barrel” feeling experienced by Captain Dan Kearney. After some time, you expect the troop to be ambushed while walking around. “It’s been to quiet,” I said to myself and then the character on screen repeated my feeling where he was expecting the same on the second day of the operation.
One thing, I think the movie glosses over is civilian casualty. It’s shown on the first day of Operation rock Avalanche when they have to fly in Lt. Colonel William Ostlund to explain to the villagers why their children and women were killed, but you never really see the troops reacting to it. They are sadder over the loss of their three friends than the ten civilian casualties.
Then again, the movie references to the soldiers admitting that they get nightmares and they’ll never be able to forget what they had seen and gone through but doesn’t really talk about their coping mechanisms.
The movie also leaves me with one question. Did they really need to go in? Their actions just led to the birth of more jihadis, as seen from a communication at the end of the movie so their success is questionable. They made a reference in the movie, that over 70 percent of the total ammunition in the country was being fired at Korengal Valley. The loss of life versus the success they had, was it worth it?
But as Junger said in a 2010 New York times interview, “Wars have always been fought over pieces of terrain that become obsolete,” he said. “Hamburger Hill, Dunkirk, Gettysburg — at the end of the day none of that terrain really mattered after it was done. But many men fought and died there just the same. It’s the story of war.”