ABC News: 'Restrepo' Shows Afghan Combat From Soldier's View

November 26th, 2010

Restrepo makes TV premiere Monday, gives soldier’s eye view of Afghan combat

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By WARREN LEVINSON Associated Press
NEW YORK November 26, 2010 (AP)

It wasn’t the bestselling books or the magazine articles that got Sebastian Junger in tight with members of the 173rd Airborne. It was the bar.

The bar, and the willingness to take fire with the unit on its deployment to the Korengal Valley, the deadliest corner of Afghanistan.

When photographer Tim Hetherington and Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm,” first showed up in the Korengal to document the deployment, they were just another couple of reporters to the members of the 173rd.

“If anything got me some kind of credibility out there at first, it was that I owned a bar,” says Junger, co-owner of the Half King in Manhattan. “They’d literally come up to me like ‘is it true, you own a bar?'”

That broke the ice. Walking patrols, documenting combat missions — everything but carrying a gun — then broke the barriers between filmmakers and soldiers. On one combat operation, Hetherington broke his leg and walked all night on it.

From this came the highly praised “Restrepo,” which has made the first cut for documentary features at the 2011 Oscars. It’s one of fifteen films from which the five nominees will be chosen. It’s also getting its TV premiere Monday on the National Geographic Channel.

“Restrepo” tells the story of the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company in the 173rd Airborne Combat Team on its deployment to the Korengal in 2007 and 2008. The title refers to the platoon outpost, named after a popular soldier, Juan Restrepo, who was killed early on.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who was awarded the Medal of Honor this month for rescuing a mortally wounded fellow soldier, was in 1st Platoon. He was interviewed on camera, but does not appear in the film.

“Restrepo” is striking for its close-up of the visceral reality of combat. It’s also notable for a lack of perspective on the larger war and an external narrator.

“We wanted to keep the viewer in the Korengal,” says Hetherington. “The soldiers in the Korengal didn’t have access to generals.”

Leaving out the generals and the politicians created a cinema verite, but there was nothing to make sense of the combat footage. Junger and Hetherington didn’t want to go the usual route of hiring a narrator.

“All of a sudden, you’re taking the viewer out of the Korengal,” Junger said. “Morgan Freeman (to choose someone who narrates many documentaries) was not narrating things in the Korengal while they were happening.”

Instead, they used excerpts of interviews conducted with the soldiers at company headquarters in Italy three months after the deployment. By then, many were suffering from post-traumatic stress after their harrowing mission.

“We went to Italy to solve a narrative problem,” Junger says. “But what we also got was this incredibly emotional content. We didn’t expect it. I don’t think the soldiers thought they were going to do that. It just happened in the interviews.”

Hetherington says the power of the interviews came from the close ties that developed in the combat filming.

“We were friends. We turned up not as military authority figures, not as the company shrink, but as friends who’d been through these experiences and, therefore, they opened up in a way that was pretty profound.”

Maj. Jeff Pickler, a member of the 173rd, says the country has done a good job honoring its veterans, but not such a good job explaining to the public where post-traumatic stress comes from.

“You start to understand when you look at such an intimate case study,” he says. Honoring vets is all well and good, this “helps people make that emotional connection.”