(2010) Documentary (National Geographic) Dan Kearney, Brendan O’Byrne, Joshua McDonough, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, Stephen Gillespie, Aron Hijar, Angel Toves, Tanner Sichter, Miguel Cortes, Misha Pemble-Belkin, Sterling Jones, LaMonta Caldwell. Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
For 15 months in 2007 and 2008, the men of the second platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade were stationed in what CNN called the most dangerous place on Earth – the Korengal Valley, a desolate and arid place in Afghanistan which is apparently riddled with Taliban insurgents. They were accompanied by author Sebastian Junger and veteran combat photographer Tim Hetherington, who captured their ordeal with over 150 hours of footage, augmented with interviews taken after the soldiers had returned home.
We never see the filmmakers nor do we hear their voices. There is no narration, no music. Simply the words of the soldiers themselves, the sound of gunfire and the occasional lowing of cows and shrieking of howler monkeys and that’s enough.
They are surrounded by 10,000 foot mountains in a valley that is like shooting fish in a barrel, as one soldier comments – except that they’re the fish. They live in an outpost that offers barely enough shelter and is named for one of their number who dies early in their deployment – and is seen at the beginning and end of the film clowning with his buddies on the flight to Afghanistan. His inclusion is a poignant reminder of the true cost of war.
The soldiers are led by Captain Dan Kearney, an earnest and committed young man who has weekly meetings with the local elders in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the community. It is often frustrating for him, wondering if he’s making any headway with them.
War has been described as days of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror and you get that sense with firefights erupting seemingly out of thin air. The tension that the men feel is palpable, especially during an exercise called Operation Rock Avalanche in which the men go from village to village looking for Taliban fighters, one muttering as they enter a bucolic meadow that they are sitting ducks.
The filmmakers wisely avoid showing the bloodier side of the business; they respect the soldiers too much for that. The soldiers that don’t make it through die off-camera, the pain of their passing shown by the reactions of their comrades. The filmmakers also don’t comment on the political nature of the war; they don’t take sides – rather they just present the daily lives of those fighting the conflict which winds up making a more powerful statement than they might have in foisting their opinions on us verbally.
The men of the platoon (and they are all men) are not adrenaline junkies or hotheads as sometimes soldiers are depicted to be; they are thoughtful and responsible, doing a job that is nearly impossible (in fact, the U.S. pulled out its troops from the area in April 2010). If these are the young people serving our country, then we should be doubly proud of them and the tragedy of losing such people is even more poignant.
It is also necessary to report that co-director Hetherington passed away earlier this year in Libya when the unit he was covering came under fire. It seems that the nature of war is to wipe out the resources of good men and women who deserve a long, productive life, a life taken away from them – and from us as well.
WHY RENT THIS: A harrowing and gritty look at the sacrifices our men and women in the armed forces make.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is what you’d expect from soldiers under fire, and there is some wartime violence depicted as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Junger wrote ”The Perfect Storm” which was later turned into a movie with George Clooney.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are updates on the soldiers written by the men themselves. There are also some promos on various veteran assistance programs.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie broke even or maybe even made a little money.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides