A Closer Look at Sundance Favorite ‘Restrepo’

Photo: National Geographic Entertainment

Did Sebastian Junger sucker Sundance into supporting an Afghanistan War with no end in sight?

Sebastian Junger lucked into a perfect storm when Restrepo, his feature documentary about a fire base in Afghanistan opened the same week General Stanley McChrystal was forced out as the Commander of US troops in that country (read the original Rolling Stone article on McChrystal here).

Junger was already slated to appear on many TV and radio shows promoting the critically acclaimed Sundance Jury Prize Winner, but when Afghanistan became the biggest news story of the week Junger was added to several guest lists including a well-publicized panel on NBC’s Meet The Press. On each of these shows Junger was asked his opinion of the ongoing war and each time he argued for more time and more troops. In other words, more war.

As I watched Junger on these shows I wondered aloud if this is what the programmers at Sundance had in mind when they promoted Junger’s film earlier this year and heaped awards and praise on it. I’d like to think they just thought Restrepo was the best documentary out there but I know that isn’t really how Sundance works.

They made no bones about pushing their anti-Iraq agenda in 2006 and 2007. The Festival handed out awards to Iraq In Fragments and No End In Sight while Geoffrey Gilmore gave interviews about the ability of documentaries to change the world. Sundance also helped produce and fund Iraq In Fragments and made no bones about the Festival’s take on the Iraq War. They were against it.

Now they’re supporting a director who is very pro-War, albeit not the Iraq War. It makes me wonder if they’ve changed their stance on the war. Perhaps they didn’t understand what Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington were trying to say with this film? Or did the charming Junger and his modern day Hemmingway shtick just take them in?

I was forced to look at a lot of Afghanistan footage back in 2007 when Junger and Hetherington were visiting the Korangal Valley. I worked on a doc for the Special Forces Command at Ft. Bragg called Why We Fight Now, and part of my job was going through hours and hours of footage shot by the 4th Psychological Operations Group of Special Forces Brigades all over the world.

I’ve also watched a lot of similar footage on You Tube filmed by the soldiers themselves, including footage from the same Korangal Valley brigade that Junger and Hetherington were embedded with in 2007 and 2008. The 173rd Airborne Brigade.

The 173rd Airborne are what you call “door kickers”. Junger and Hetherington make them seem like regular soldiers but they aren’t. These are young men who have been trained to go from house to house looking for insurgents. Highly trained.

Restrepo, the film, never talks about the history of the 173rd. The filmmakers never mention that the 173rd is an airborne attack brigade. Junger and Hetherington prefer to focus on the youth of the brigade. Cutting to numerous reaction shots or the youngest looking soldiers. That choice pays off emotionally when the 173rd gets caught in a deadly firefight and lose one of their best soldiers. That footage of the soldiers confronting their own mortality on the battlefield is by far the high point of the film. There’s also a great opening aerial shot from a helicopter and Afghanistan is strangely beautiful. There are also a number of moments when we see soldiers interacting with each other in a casual manner even as danger lurks right around the corner. I’d like to say the rest of the film is good but it’s not.

Characters are not set up properly and Hetherington’s camerawork is shaky. He appears to be more concerned with staying alive than filming the action. (Rightfully so, I should add.) Most of the time it is hard to tell the soldiers apart whether being filmed in Afghanistan or in the later interviews shot back in Italy and used as a framing device for the film.

People will argue that the film is shot cinema verite style; therefore such complaints are moot. I wish that were the case. Unfortunately, Junger and Hetherington are too busy manipulating the audience for that to be true.

Maybe these are the mistakes of novice filmmakers. Or maybe the film itself was an afterthought. He was originally embedded as a print journalist for Vanity Fair. He has stated in interviews that as long as he was already in Afghanistan he figured he’d go ahead and make a movie. Why not? Everyone else with a camera seems to be making documentaries today.

Maybe I’m jaded because I know there are a lot of similar films out there, and I know there is footage like this available from many other sources. Seriously, a quick perusal of You Tube will offer up numerous firefights featuring the 173rd Airborne along with skits, sing alongs and other nonsense straight from the front lines.

A couple of my favorite You Tube vids feature the Afghan National Army in all it’s glory and a US Army lead tour of marijuana fields taller than the average American house (right).

Having said that I am glad the Sundance crowd is embracing the film if for no other reason than I think it is important that Americans of all stripes start paying attention to our involvement in the Middle East. As someone who has been to Iraq three times since 2005, I really believe that we need to pay more attention to the people who live on the ground over there.

Personally, I don’t support the War in Afghanistan. I don’t think it is the “good war” like Sebastian Junger does. I tend to agree with the Afghani women’s right’s activist Malalai Joya when she says, “You say Iraq War is bad, Afghan War is good. War is war.”

But that’s me.

The odd thing is that so many film journalists thought Restrepo was an anti-war film. A quick glance at several film blogs from this year’s Sundance coverage indicate that a number of film journalists also misunderstood what Junger was trying to say.

IndieWIRE’s Anne Thompson wrote after the first screening, “This all-too-timely doc should be seen in theaters; it makes one wonder how effective an outside fighting force could ever be in Afghanistan.”

Then there was this statement from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachael Grady writing for Politics Daily, “… without being overly didactic or ideological, the movie raises important questions about our involvement in Afghanistan, and was a thought-provoking (and non-star-&*$!ing) way to open Sundance 2010.”

That would be a neat statement except that Sebastian Junger is a star. The kind of star voted Sexiest Author by People Magazine in 1997. The kind of star that Sundancers eat up. A Vanity Fair contributing, hipster bar owning, best selling author kind of star. And the movie isn’t supposed to raise questions about the war. It’s supposed to get you to support the troops. To get the country to pony up more men and more treasure in the future.

The fact is Restrepo is much closer in tone and perspective to other flag waving Nat Geo fare like Inside The Green Berets than the kind of docs Heidi and Rachael make like Jesus Camp and 12th and Delaware. (Inside The Green Berets is another doc where the filmmakers film a soldier dying in Afghanistan, but in that film the cameraman gets blown up as well. And they do interviews with the fallen soldier prior to his death so the viewer actually cares about him. Unlike in Restrepo where we care only for the soldiers who are left behind.)

Personally, I wouldn’t give a platform to someone like Junger who obviously has an agenda. He did reporting from Afghanistan in the ’90s and doesn’t want the Taliban to come back. I’m not sure he told Sundance that when he pitched his movie to the powers that be at the festival. But I do know that’s what he’s telling Charlie Rose now.

So I ask, is Sundance in favor of this war? Or did they just fall for Junger’s handsome face?