The onset of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s coincided with the explosion in availability of filmmaking tools. These have unquestionably been our most photographed, recorded and otherwise documented conflicts. The war documentary is now a thriving genre, which is sad, in a way. The result is that there are any number of great documentaries about the War in Afghanistan that I can recommend a person watch instead of Lone Survivor.
Truthfully, I’d recommend even a shoddy war doc over Lone Survivor. The new movie, which is clearly trying to be respectful of the soldiers who died during Operation Red Wings, instead sorely dishonors them by filtering their final fight through the lens of Hollywood action tropes. By the time a quartet of them are leaping off a cliff in slow motion, an explosion right behind them, I was through. But there were still something like 40 minutes left in the runtime. It is a crass, empty film, adapting a true story without any clear intent other than making Navy SEALS look badass, which marks it pretty definitively as a recruitment film in my view. I would never have thought one could make an endorsement for the military out of the story of 19 men dying while just one lived (hence the title), not even managing to accomplish their mission in the process, but there we have it.
Restrepo is a good nonfiction alternative to Lone Survivor. In fact, it is a good alternative to a great many war films. But I specifically stack it up against Lone Survivor because the two movies share some crucial elements. Both are set in Afghanistan’s mountainous northern region, one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Both are about military operations or campaigns that would ultimately fail (the mission in Restrepo would be only a minor victory). And both seek to help the audience understand the life of a soldier under nigh-unfathomable pressure.
The difference is in the approach. Lone Survivor is worshipful. It makes a token stab at humanizing its characters with cliched (and extremely brief) scenes of them talking about home. But that’s shuffled aside before sending them into a meat grinder. Restrepo is much more about men than their fighting. The crew was embedded with a platoon of the 503rd Infantry Regiment for a full year. The platoon’s mission was to clear the Taliban out of the Korangal Valley, to establish a permanent outpost there. We watch them build this outpost, attempt to understand the local villagers, just shoot the shit with each other and only occasionally engage in combat.
The impression that much of what I’ve read, seen and heard about war has given me is that it is a good deal of boredom and/or routine punctuated by bouts of pure terror. Restrepo conveys both aspects of this experience incredibly well, and in doing so it tears away so much Hollywood artifice. In movies, it’s only the squad wimp who might cry or otherwise demonstrate his fear in a firefight, but here we see almost everyone openly weeping even as they strategize, duck and cover and return fire. It’s vivid, unforgettable and world’s away from the what we’ve been conditioned to think of as “realistic.”
Restrepo was directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastien Junger, two journalists with a tremendous amount of experience in war zones. Hetherington, in fact, would later die while covering the Libyan civil war. They are not comfortable film artists playing cops and robbers; they know this world and how to make it relatable to the viewer.
Anyone who thinks a war movie can’t truly be anti-war did not take documentaries into their consideration. There is nothing glamorous or attractive about the fighting in Restrepo. But at the same time, it does help us understand that well-worn but seemingly true idea of soldiers as a “band of brothers.” Getting to know these men in their everyday frustrations and how they interact makes clear the bond they share. The title of the doc comes from the name of the outpost, which was named in honor of Juan Restrepo, a well-loved medic who dies early in the film. It is in his memory that many of the soldiers featured vow to carry out their duty. Lone Survivor pays lip service to the ideal with talk of “brotherhood” and lots of weepy, melodramatic theatrics that would be decried as “chick flick” material if the characters were women. But it’s not really about them as humans, even if it ends in a dedication that displays a picture of each of them. It’s just a Call of Duty session.
The most drastic difference in the philosophies of Restrepo and Lone Survivor can be seen in what they take away from their own stories. The Restrepo Outpost would ultimately be abandoned, and the Korangal Valley would fall back into Taliban control. The soldiers in Lone Survivor were dispatched to assassinate an insurgent leader, but all save one of them would perish, and their target would die a few years later in a shootout with Pakistani police. Restrepo asks us to grapple with the implications of this senselessness. It is a haunting, powerful question. Lone Survivor defiantly states that the botched Operation Red Wings was worth it. Why? Because one man lived? That’s not a good enough argument.