Unquestionably in the top ranks of 2010's documentary crop, Restrepo takes a "just the facts" slice-of-life approach to the experience of U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington spent one year (June 2007 to June 2008) embedded with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and the resulting footage is, by turns, harrowing (in its "you are there" presentation of men in constant mortal danger) and emotional (the highs and lows of male bonding under pressure).
Restrepo takes its title from the under-siege rural outpost that is the film's primary setting, as well as from the late soldier who was the outpost's namesake: twenty-year-old field medic Juan "Doc" Restrepo (the other key setting is OP (Outpost) Korengal, or "Kop"). With simple, effective use of a few title cards and judicious use of filmed interviews, Junger and Hetherington establish some key facts to contextualize what is otherwise a collection of raw footage of the year in the life of these men on the ground. The filmmakers frame their document with video footage of "Doc" Restrepo, a ghostly reminder of the toll of the war, and the footage of engagment with the enemy includes moments when men on both sides of the conflict die, as well as immediate surveying of deadly collateral damage to presumably innocent civilians unlucky enough to live in a war zone. In one sequence, the death of one American soldier sends shockwaves that buffet his brothers in arms, one of whom breaks into racking sobs before Hetherington's camera.
These moments of fresh hell, though penetratingly affecting, get the same dispassionate treatment as any other event in the film. Junger earned fame as an American journalist and author (The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea), and the British Hetherington made his name as a photojournalist. Evidently, they worked highly effectively in concert as they pursued their objective of staying by the soldiers' side during combat operations and public-relations activities like meeting with local tribal elders. Junger and Hetherington's stated intent was to be apolitical, though it's hard not to see the military strategy on display as absurd and morally corrupt. The men on the ground are doggedly well-intentioned and as professional as can be in carrying out their orders, but their mission in the Korengal Valley is doomed to failure, compounded by meaningless deaths. Despite being a moving reminder to support our troops, Restrepo cannot help but be "Exhibit A" in the case against the unwinnable "War on Terror."
National Geographic Entertainment does a fine job of bringing Restrepo home on hi-def Blu-ray. The 1080i image makes the best of Hetherington's on-the-fly camerawork, with generally sharp and detailed results. The interview clips look the most colorful and detailed, given the stable photography and well-arrange lighting, but the on-the-ground documentary footage has a more visceral impact, that's hardly diluted—and arguably heightened—by occasional softness or graininess. The inescapable liveliness of the picture quality gets a strong complement in the Dolby Digital 5.1 surrounf and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio options, which—though not lossless—ably contribute to the "you are there" effect, especially in the wraparound design of the 5.1 mix.
Some excellent bonus features continue the story. "Deleted Scenes" (20:25, HD) and "Extended Interviews" (26:13, HD) offer plenty of interesting moments and insightful comments from the cutting-room floor.
A "'Sleeping Soldiers' Photo Gallery" (4:36, HD) constitutes a montage of peace and war in the field.
Most intriguingly, the disc presents "updates on the soldiers from Second Platoon, Battle Company" (text only), in their own words. Warm and thoughtful, these dispatches from the men—some back to work in the service and some reestablishing their homefront lives—add greater context to the humanity on display in the feature.
Lastly, one can find Public Service Announcements for IAVA, Operation Homefront and TAPS.
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