Anyone who saw 2010’s “Restrepo” knows it isn’t just the best documentary to come out of our post-9/11 conflicts but one of the best war films ever made. The bond that journalists and co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington formed with the soldiers of the US Army’s 2d Platoon, B Company, 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team went beyond mere embedding. We saw the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan the way the men saw it — as a landscape of beauty and sudden death — but also from a macro view that took in the conflicted sympathies of local villagers and the whole complicated calculus of America’s global mission. The film conveyed a profound and heartbreaking sympathy for these boy-men without once painting them as wind-up heroes. Indeed, “Restrepo” presented true heroism as something forged in extremis, through shared exertion and fear and loss, and therefore unable to be grasped by civilians.
Why, then, has Junger decided to revisit the topic with “Korengal,” a new documentary shaped from footage unused in the first film? Is it to commune with the ghost of Hetherington, who was killed covering the Libyan civil war in April 2011? Is it to sum up our experience in Afghanistan now that that experience is coming to a close?
Or perhaps, like the soldiers of Battle Company, he’s drawn back to a place of emotions and memories so vivid that “normal life” seems flavorless by comparison. “Korengal” opens with Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin, a sleepy-eyed warrior — the son of hippies — who was one of the breakout figures of “Restrepo,” speaking to the camera four months after leaving the valley that CNN called “the deadliest place on Earth.” “I’d rather be there than here,” he says with a calm that doesn’t fool you for a minute. “I’d go back there right now.”
So, apparently, would Junger, if only to burrow more deeply into the men’s daily lives. “Korengal” is a more diffuse film than “Restrepo,” less reportorial, and not nearly as emotionally overpowering. A cynic might even say these are editing-room trims pasted together with hope and a musical score. But that’s assuming this second film was made with general audiences in mind, and it’s not. In an interview with a military news and analysis website, Junger clarified his intent as “an attempt to help soldiers understand their own experience [and,] by extension, civilians as well. Ultimately, I want to facilitate the journey home for the nearly three million vets who have served overseas in the past.” In other words, the first film was for us. This one’s for them.
Still, if you’ve invested the time and emotion in “Restrepo” (and if you haven’t, it’s required viewing before seeing “Korengal”), the second film is a welcome reunion with soldiers like Captain Dan Kearney, 1st Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell, Specialists Sterling Jones and Miguel Cortez and Kyle Steiner. Their vulnerability and their grappling with why they’re here — to fight the Taliban on its home turf but also to protect and win over the wary locals — is disarmingly frank and free of illusions. “Think of someone trying to take your house down,” one of the men says about the enemy. “You’re gonna fight for it, and that’s what they did.”
“Korengal” succeeds at putting across the grind in Outpost Restrepo, an eagle’s eyrie of a stronghold named for a fallen platoon mate. Constant tension — the natural result of being barraged with gunfire for nine months straight, 10 to 14 times per day — interweaves surreally with boredom, which the men keep at bay with six-hour arguments over who would win in a fight, George Clooney or Fabio. We learn that each soldier has his favorite weapon: the 50, the 240, the 203, the SAW, the LAW. It’s like a Mac vs PC thing, only with live ammo. We hear an NCO talk of hiding his trauma from his men, the better to protect them, and we hear of “the snap,” the sound a bullet makes as it cuts past your head and tells you you’re still alive.
We don’t see many Afghans. “Korengal” isn’t about what it’s like to be in this place, it is in this place — and inside the men’s heads looking out.
There’s nothing in the new film as harrowing as the “Restrepo” sequence in which a soldier witnesses the death of a comrade and comes emotionally unglued in the midst of battle, his sobs an admission of what all of them are feeling. Nor is there a scene as touching as the one where four of the soldiers dance like giddy teenagers to a late-night pop song. But at times “Korengal” gets close to the men’s struggle to come back to the world — our world, the nice, safe one — and it gets close to the things that keep them awake at night. “ ‘You did what you had to do’ — I hate that comment,” says Sergeant Brendan O'Byrne about the meaningless phrases he hears back home. “I didn’t have to do any of it. But I did. ‘You did what you had to do.’ Is that what God’s gonna say? I don’t think so.”
The official trailer from YouTube: