Of the many films—fiction and nonfiction—made about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Restrepo” is unique, a tightly focused documentary shot by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who spent months with a single unit—Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade—at a remote mountain outpost in far eastern Afghanistan and simply recorded their experiences over the course of a fifteen-month deployment.
“We were assigned by Vanity Fair to cover the story,” Hetherington explained during a recent visit to Dallas on which he was accompanied by Sergeant Major Lamonta Caldwell, one of the men. “But the project came from our reporting on Battle Company—Sebastian Junger had wanted to follow a platoon of soldiers, and he was down in 2005 with the Battle Company, and he had never been with American soldiers before. He was really impressed by the soldiers, by the quality of the guys—good, strong soldiers and intelligent young men—and he said that if Battle Company redeployed to Afghanistan, he wanted to follow them. So when Battle Company was redeployed in 2007 and went to Korengal Valley, Sebastian had the idea to follow a platoon for a year from Battle Company and write a book, and he had the idea of making a film, but he didn’t know how to do that. I’m a photographer, and so we got teamed up. I’d shot and made films before.
“So we got over together into the Korengal Valley in 2007, and at that time I thought it was going to be a really quiet assignment, but when we got into the Valley there was a lot of fighting going on. I mean, these guys were fighting nearly every day. By the end of 2008, the statistics were that eighteen percent of all fighting across the whole of the country among all coalition forces was taking place in that one valley. Seven percent of American bombs were being dropped in that area of operations, and Battle Company had sustained a casualty rate—killed or wounded—of about twenty percent. The world was really focused on Iraq—nobody really knew that Afghanistan had this level of fighting. What we know now is that the Afghan war had spiraled out of control, but what’s common knowledge now wasn’t known in 2007.
“We were embedded journalists, living in this small outpost on the side of a mountain, and—when we first got there—with no running water or electricity, sleeping on little cots in the dirt. We’d come and just spend weeks or months there. We did a total of ten trips, about five each, sometimes together, sometimes apart. After a time, the guys connected with us in a way that was unique and, I think, profound. The last shoot was August, 2008. I was on the last helicopter up, with Sgt. Maj. Caldwell.”
“They earned our trust. They earned their wings with us,” Caldwell said. Admitting that initially there was some reluctance to give the journalists such complete access, he added, “When you bring them in, they have to earn their way in. It means you go on patrol with us, you sleep with us—you’re part of it. When we go on patrol and we get shot at, they get shot at the same way.”
Caldwell, a career soldier from Louisiana, explained the difficulty of the situation in their posting. “I was actually in Afghanistan in 2005-2006—I was in Kandahar province. I was there with the same battalion and the same company. So I had been there before, and some of the other soldiers you see in the documentary had been deployed before, but in different areas. Down in Kandahar, the terrain is a lot different—similar to what you have in El Paso, lot of sand and rocks, where you can see a long distance away. This time, we went up into the mountains close to Pakistan, and there’s more vegetation, looking like the hills of North Carolina. Those became the big issue for us, because we didn’t expect that. We had to make those adjustments on the fly.”
“We wanted to make a film that was from the soldiers’ perspective,” Hetherington explained. “And so we didn’t want to have anything that breaks the illusion of the audience being in that valley. So we didn’t ask generals—the soldiers don’t ask the generals why they’re in the valley. And we didn’t ask politicians. And we didn’t give a map overview. We give you this very narrow focus.
“Network news is in three-minute bites, and because of the bigger political discussions going on at the Washington level, we often forget, or are not really exposed to the human side—that these are human beings that we’re putting in the field. Soldiers become sort of like Kabul cutouts, silhouettes to give ideas to our patriotism. They’re used as symbols. We rarely see them as human beings. And I think that was the point of the film, to bring out how they’re individuals. So you see them both in times of distress, but you also see them in lighter moments.
“Because at the end of the day this country asks a lot of these young men. Ultimately the sharp edge of who really conducts foreign policy in this country is not in Washington—it’s these young men, like the men you see on the side of this mountain. You have to ask yourself, have we equipped them well for it? Are we really taking them into concern, or are they just this cardboard cutout, this symbol we put on the front of the newspaper?”
In addition to the footage shot on location in Afghanistan, “Restrepo” include excerpts from interviews with members of the squad filmed some months after their deployment ended. Hetherington described the decision to add that material as being made during the editing process.
“When we came to the end, we asked, how do we sew this all together?” he said. “We didn’t want to have a commentary. And so what we did was go back to Italy three months afterwards to see them. And we didn’t understand it at the time, but three months later a lot of the guys were having a hard time—the film is only a sliver of how traumatic it was for them—and they push those things deep inside them while they’re fighting. If you start questioning what you’re doing, getting upset in the moment, you’re not really going to be useful in terms of fighting. But ultimately, it’s going to come out. Three months later we turned up, and we weren’t authority figures or the company shrink, we were guys who had gone through that experience with them. We could identify precise moments in time and ask, ‘At this moment, what were you feeling?’ That’s why the stuff in the interviews becomes so powerful, because they just opened up to us in a really incredible way.”
“In my last four deployments, including Iraq, you can see that,” Caldwell added. “Soldiers don’t want to be open about the issues they do have. Sometimes we try to repress those things to be more manly. We think we can endure them. But a lot of times, they do have issues. The army has done a tremendous job putting people out there to help with psychiatric evaluations. But it’s up to the individual soldier to seek help. And soldiers sometimes will hide it.”
And Caldwell praised the final film for its overall authenticity. Asked whether it captured the experience of the men accurately, he said, “I think it did absolutely. I thought they did an outstanding job of portraying what the unit—not only the Battle Company, we just happened to be the fly on the wall—but what all units go through and how they deal with it—from a stressful fight, to a difficult task or going out on difficult missions, to separating oneself from one’s loved ones and losing friends in battle. We all go through those nightmarish times. But they’re outstanding soldiers. They bounce back and continue to do the mission.”
Hetherington called “Restrepo” a “unifying film,” expressing the hope that it would bring soldiers and civilians, left and right, politicians and ordinary citizens together in an effort to reexamine American policy and practice in Afghanistan. “The country is at a critical time,” he said, “and we hope this film can be useful as we think about the war. I think that people who see our film are moved by it. This isn’t a lecture, this isn’t some kind of political-opinion lecture. I think it takes you to a place you’ve never been before in your life. And it provides really good context for the political discussion right now.”