It’s fascinating, and not a little unsettling, how little certain things about warfare seem to have changed. In the almost 100 years since the First World War, you’d think that soldiery has become something entirely different – that stealth bombers, ‘smart guns’ and UAVs would be worlds away from the gruelling trench warfare, mustard gas attacks and biplanes of the early 20th century.
There obviously are big differences between the wartime experience of a soldier in the trenches trenches near the Somne and that of a Marine deployed in Afghanistan in recent years. The wars can barely be compared. And yet, after watching Restrepo (by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger) two things seem to be very much the same: the powerlessness while you’re under fire, and the tedium in between fights. In spite of PSPs and other distractions, the lulls between one engagement and the next seem to be as much of an enemy as the guys on the other side armed with AK-74s. It’s the moments when you become painfully aware of the situation, of the guy who was shot in the neck the other day, who used to be a friend and now is a body. It’s those moments when the overpowered gun you’ve got that’s so good at tearing apart the bad guys is of no use whatsoever.
Watching Restrepo it’s difficult not to think of Generation Kill although the soldiers in the HBO miniseries keep saying how Afghanistan, now, that was a good deployment. None of that Iraqi quagmire shit. However, for all its realistic look and feel, its journalistic credentials, Generation Kill is storytelling in a way that Restrepo isn’t. The former is structured in a way that makes it more immediately watchable and relatable. You care about Sgt. Colbert and Cpl. Person, about Lt. Fick and Doc Bryan, in ways that you don’t immediately about the Platoon depicted in the documentary. Hetherington and Junger didn’t over-narrativise their subjects, which is frustrating for the audience: there are times when Restrepo feels unstructured, and the tedium that the solders experience does creep in. It’s exactly this, though, that gives the scenes when an operation goes wrong and US soldiers get killed all the more chilling. When you watch one of the men realise that one of his friends has died and break out in loud wails unexpected from a guy who before had been much closer to the cliché of an all-American grunt.
It’s rare to get a depiction of men at war as devoid of judgment as Hetherington and Junger’s. Whether factual, facts-based, fictionalised or outright fictional, most writers and film makers dealing with war have certain attitudes towards the soldiers they depict. I haven’t seen many films, though, that leave it up to the audience to make up its own mind as much as Restrepo. It’s irritating, but it’s also liberating; I don’t mind documentaries taking a clear stand, as long as the bias is always overt, but Restrepo does that rare thing: it reports. It doesn’t opine. Which doesn’t mean that the film is artless – the craft of the film is evident – but it doesn’t use its art to tell the audience how to feel towards what it’s showing. It’s a rare document that deserves to be watched and remembered… even if it didn’t get the Oscar. And much more so because it is one of the last works of one of its authors.