| Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a soldier in a combat zone in Afghanistan? Filmmakers Sebastian Junger (bestselling author of “The Perfect Storm”) and Tim Hetherington give you that opportunity in their highly acclaimed war documentary. They were given unlimited access in following an Army platoon for the entire duration of their deployment in the remote Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan.
This Valley of Death was named by CNN as “the deadliest place on Earth” and considered as one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This rugged valley six miles long near the border with Pakistan was considered to be a crucial relay point for Taliban fighters moving from Pakistan toward Kabul, and several top al-Qaida leaders were thought to have used it as a base of operations.
The high-definition widescreen cameras focus on the courageous men of Battle Company, 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team as they build and defend an outpost they named “Restrepo,” in honor of their medic, who was killed in action.
The movie opens one week before their 15-month deployment, which lasted from May 2007 until July 2008. The 190 hours of footage was condensed and tightly edited into 93 priceless minutes.
The soldiers’ feelings and reactions were captured in interviews three months after the deployment ended from their base in Italy.
The aerial shots of the desolate terrain set the geographical stage for the difficult living conditions. Capt. Dan Kearney remarking on taking insurgent fire nearly every day says “we felt like fish in a barrel.” Kearney is portrayed as a smart and dedicated officer. He not only was responsible for the men under his command and advancing the “tip of the spear” military goal, but also held weekly meetings with the valley elders stressing the importance of building a paved road to foster trade and commerce.
This fantastic first-hand account gives new meaning to the slogan “support the troops.” It shows the bonds of friendship that develop as these boys turn into men before our eyes. They are like one big extended family.
The boredom and small talk provides a brief respite from the adrenaline-fueled fire fights where life and death is only one bullet away. The most frightening experience, dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche, was a nightmarish assault on Taliban safe havens. The fear and horror reached its highest level during an ambush on day 3. Some guys break down and start crying in the aftermath of the chaos and the gut-wrenching loss of a comrade-in-arms.
Survivor guilt, an inability to sleep because of nightmares and PTSD symptoms are touched upon. Viewers will not soon forget the distinctive sounds of live ammunition being fired.
This movie personalizes the soldiers as you see their faces and hear their voices. You get such a strong feeling of identification with these fellow Americans that you feel a sense of relief when their tour of duty ends.
A title card at the end reveals that in late 2009, the U.S. military began withdrawing from the sparsely populated Korengal Valley, where nearly 50 American soldiers were killed.
The movie premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize. It also won the Special Jury Prize at the Full Frame Film Festival. These telling precursors should put it at the head of the class for an Oscar nomination.
This politically neutral non-fiction film allows you to draw your own conclusions about the ongoing Afghanistan conflict. It opens exclusively for a limited engagement at the Glenwood Arts.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"