Journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington get astonishingly immediate combat footage in their documentary Restrepo, keeping up every step of the way with U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, generally considered the most dangerous posting in the military. Within the film’s first two minutes, Junger and Hetherington put you right inside an SUV hit by an improvised explosive device, and the filmmakers are literally right next to soldiers at several points as they’re being shot at by insurgents.
It’s tempting, then, to praise Restrepo merely for its courage, to review the bravery of the filmmakers and the subjects rather than the movie itself. But just because it’s possible to get this footage doesn’t mean that it makes for an effective movie, and the chaotic nature of the situation necessarily means that a lot of the sequences are confusing and jumbled. Although Junger and Hetherington intersperse the field footage with later interviews with a number of soldiers (some of which are quite heartbreaking), it’s still hard to tell the various subjects apart, and the movie often depicts missions whose objectives are unclear.
The troops’ profound sense of brotherhood comes across well, though (the title comes from the name of an outpost christened in honor of a fallen comrade), and it’s hard not to be wowed by the circumstances that Junger and Hetherington capture. If that unfettered, intimate access had been successfully married to a stronger narrative structure, Restrepo might have been a great film instead of just a collection of striking moments.