The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Last Christmas as a gift I received Sebastian Junger's most recent novel, a simply and appropriately titled book called War. I had read Junger's novel The Perfect Storm, enjoyed it, and in general was aware of what a talent he was both in writing and in documentary filming.  Reading War, I was blown away.  It immediately climbed to the top of the list of my favorite books.  After reading it and reading up on it and its background, I was more than pleased to find out that Junger also filmed a documentary about his year imbedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 2010's Restrepo.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, Junger and fellow film-maker Tim Hetherington made several extended visits to a U.S. base in Afghanistan, living with U.S. troops at a remote outpost that sees some of the heaviest action in the entire conflict.  Their experiences and interviews with those troops produced both Junger's book and the National Geographic-sponsored documentary.  The two finished products could serve as companion pieces. They're that good together. They work for any number of reasons; as current events and issues, as examinations of your average soldier in war, and maybe most effective of all, the lunacy of war.

In June of 2008, a platoon of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion arrives in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, a lonely outpost that sees some of the heaviest action and fighting in the country. They face a year deployment ahead of them, trying to survive daily firefights (and sometimes five or six) with Taliban fighters and insurgents out in the middle of nowhere. The outpost -- and eventually another post named 'Restrepo' after a U.S. medic killed in action -- is basically off the grid. The platoon's objective (besides holding the position) is to increase their range, making it safer for the Afghan people to live while also pushing the Taliban back. Nothing comes easy though as the days turn to weeks and finally to months.

That description doesn't really do justice to the power of this documentary, but I can't come up with anything better.  Over the course of the year, Junger and Hetherington shot over 150 hours of footage, and the documentary is a result of that footage. At just over 90 minutes, it feels like much more could have been shown, some of it available to watch on the DVD as special features.  It is footage shot on location in Afghanistan at the Korengal outpost -- dubbed KOP -- and the smaller base further up the valley, Restrepo.  The two film-makers are unseen as they stay behind the camera, focusing on the soldiers as they go about their daily lives, going on patrol, surviving the boredom. You can watch all the war movies you like -- even the most realistic ones -- and never know what war is like.  'Restrepo' is one of the few war-themed things I've ever watched where I felt like I could appreciate the sheer terror of being in a combat situation.

It can be difficult watching something like this to actually appreciate what goes on.  At a desolate, God-forsaken valley in northeast Afghanistan, a infantry platoon of American soldiers is battling a generally unseen enemy, exchanging fire with them several times a day from one hill at another hill.  What works is that the documentary keeps it focused on these events.  There is no bigger picture here, no political ideologies, no perception of the war on a bigger level.  These soldiers from all their different backgrounds and home situations are counting down the days until they can leave this awful place behind for good.  In the meantime, they just want to survive.

There are moments here of perfection that only a documentary could produce in terms of reality and realism in general.  The footage in-country is edited with interviews done following the end of the deployment with a handful of soldiers. We see the bigger events transpire over the course of a year, the biggest being a large-scale patrol called 'Rock Avalanche' that saw the platoon join in a much bigger effort to clear some of the valley. Several soldiers are killed, including one sergeant who everyone thought of as the best the unit had. A fellow soldier breaks down upon seeing his body, a reaction that hits you right in your gut while watching it. A post-deployment interview has another soldier slowly lose it, his eyes glossing over as he discusses the event again. He asks for a second to re-focus, his eyes watering, the emotions all over his face. It is an incredibly moving moment, one that helps show you what these soldiers go through not only while serving but once they're done with their service.

The footage is amazing and hard to watch -- automatic gunfire peppering the countryside at all times, explosions rocking the hills -- and the interviews even better as we hear and see what these soldiers go through and think about.  But the best thing going is that the context of the current Afghan conflict is not entirely needed. It could just as easily be Vietnam, Korea, WWII, or WWI.  This is a self-contained, focused documentary that isn't interested in the global repercussions of what's going on.  'Restrepo' is about the individual soldiers, the average American (most of them young men in their early 20s) turned into an infantryman and his thoughts, his fears, his worries, his wants and desires.  It should be required viewing for anyone and everyone no matter how you feel about the current situation in the Middle East.

This documentary has also been in the news for all the wrong reasons as Hetherington was tragically killed in April 2011 while working as a war correspondent in Libya.  Taken too early, this is an incredible indication of the talent he had as a journalist and as a film-maker.

Restrepo <---trailer (2010): ****/****

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