In 2010, journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington delivered a look at war that was unlike any documentary that had come before. Using footage from their time embedded with the Battle Company of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, the pair created Restrepo, a semi-surreal nightmare of alternating boredom and terror. Battle Company was stationed in the Korengal Valley, a remote area in eastern Afghanistan which was at the time considered “the deadliest place on Earth.”
During the period Junger and Hetherington were with them, nearly a fifth of all combat in the country was taking place in this valley. The film is an extended study in futility, as the characters try and fail to make a lasting impact on their position. In one final gut punch, the doc ends with the blunt message that, not long after Battle Company finished their mission, the Restrepo outpost was abandoned.
A lot has happened since then. Hetherington died covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. He and Junger had planned to revisit the footage they shot for Restrepo and use it to tell more stories about the men of Battle Company. Now, Junger has brought that idea to fruition with Korengal. It’s not a sequel to its predecessor, more like a companion. It follows the exact same cast of characters, during the same period of time, often in the same situations. But the focus is different, and so is the sensibility. And in the process of taking a new approach, the magic that Restrepo has is lost.
For one thing, we can’t watch the film having seen Restrepo and now feel that all the best stuff that Hetherington and Junger captured on film ended up in that first movie. Korengal isn’t quite a series of outtakes, but at times it comes close to seeming that way. It’s possible that in this respect it only suffers in comparison to its predecessor, and anyone who hasn’t seen Restrepo won’t be bothered by all that. But I highly doubt that the same thing would happen if someone watched Korengal first.
It’s not entirely clear what new perspective on war Junger is attempting to convey here. The idea is to use the same men and setting to tell something different, but I don’t think what he intended comes through. In press materials, he speaks of a desire to “help soldiers understand their own experience in combat, rather than communicate that experience to a civilian population.” Maybe I am not getting the message because I have never been in combat. But I doubt that’s the issue.
More than anything else, Junger seems to be flattering the soldiers in a way that he and Hetherington assiduously did not do the first time around. There are no sequences like those in Restrepo of the platoon miserably failing to negotiate with the local villagers. While similar scenes appear, they are edited more from the frustrated mindset of the soldiers, rather than with an objective remove. So the film encourages the audience to distrust these villagers and to dismiss their intelligence and integrity the same way that the soldiers do. Maybe this is what Junger means by “helping soldiers understand their own experience,” but being put in that mindset, without any hint of criticality, feels almost dangerous. The dehumanization of the Afghan locals is one of the reasons this war has been so disastrous in the first place.
Like Restrepo, Korengal is apolitical. But while the first film uses that stance to create a more universal look at how terrifying combat is, this one seems to slide into a “we’re cool; the other guys are not” viewpoint. We’re invited to sympathize more with the soldiers this time, rather than to simply empathize with them through our natural judgment. There’s a lot more footage of them goofing around. Talk about combat is more concerned with what weaponry they favor and the rush of a gunfight. Non-diegetic music is utilized to a greater degree, often to accentuate those scenes. It’s an emotional shove that’s nothing like the verite sensibility of Restrepo.
There’s also nothing in Korengal like the scene in Restrepo where soldiers openly weep in the middle of a firefight. Nothing like the montage composed of silent moments of reflection from the various interviews. In this film, the fact that Outpost Restrepo was abandoned is disclosed at the outset but never revisited, making it easy to forget the pointlessness of the entire endeavor. It crafts an off-putting happy ending out of the sad affair. All things considered, Korengal comes off as pro-war. Which is anti-humanity and the opposite of what was and still is great about Restrepo.
Korengal opens in New York City this weekend and expands theatrically through the summer before hitting VOD on September 9th. For info on release dates, check the film’s website.