One platoon turns into larger picture
“Restrepo,” a documentary about an Army platoon in Afghanistan, studiously avoids politics, but politics have had a way of shadowing “Restrepo” since it arrived in theaters in late June. President Barack Obama dismissed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan the week the film opened in New York. And the leak this week of classified military documents has put the Afghan war back on the front pages just in time for the film’s opening in Austin.
Co-directed by Sebastian Junger, veteran war correspondent and au- thor of the 1997 best-seller “The Perfect Storm,” and photojournalist Tim Hetherington, “Restrepo” is an intimate portrait of soldiers in combat, with moments of deep power and anguish. The filmmakers each made five monthlong trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan — sometimes together, sometimes separately — to document the 2007-08 experiences of a platoon of American soldiers as they try to win the hearts and minds of the valley’s unwelcoming villagers and defend a primitive, isolated firebase named in honor of a fallen comrade, Pfc. Juan Restrepo.
Spc. Misha Pemble-Belkin, left, and fellow soldiers from Battle Company engage in a firefight at the Restrepo outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
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Junger and Hetherington keep a steadfast focus on the soldiers at Restrepo and steer clear of any discussion of the war’s larger strategies and politics. To supplement their soda-straw look at the war, Junger and Hetherington interviewed about 10 of the soldiers featured in the film after their deployment. These post-combat interviews, particularly the ones with Spc. Misha Pemble-Belkin, whose pimply face and shy demeanor painfully remind us how young these soldiers are, and Capt. Dan Kearney, the American commander in the Korengal, give the film’s action some limited, but much-needed context.
As a piece of cinema verité, “Restrepo” possesses an authenticity lacking in most Hollywood films. Yet Junger and Hetherington clumsily frame their generally chronological narrative in a way that is both hackneyed and manipulative. It’s striking, too, how strongly reality mirrors fiction: Much of the action and noncombat interactions among the soldiers will look and sound familiar to anyone acquainted with various war films of the past 30 years.
The Army decided this spring that the U.S. effort in the Korengal was not worth the cost and withdrew from the valley after a five-year fight and 42 American deaths, a fact quietly noted in a subtitle at film’s end. For a narrowly focused documentary determined to look in only one, tightly cropped direction, there was no avoiding this concession to futility. Rating: R for language, combat violence. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Theater: Arbor.
You know those radiationdetection devices that are supposed to keep our homeland secure by scanning cargo for nuclear weapons at shipping ports?
Turns out they’re about as smart as that Transportation Security Administration rule that makes you throw out your 5-ounce shampoo while the mommy behind you brings baby formula onboard without notice. They give false-positive readings to kitty litter and old televisions and could easily miss a grapefruit-sized chunk of highly enriched uranium.
That factoid is one of scores of insomnia-inspiring gems in “Countdown to Zero,” a doomsday doc insisting that nuclear weapons deserve a larger slice of our Worry About This piechart than they currently get.
The argument is pretty effective, too, as filmmaker Lucy Walker runs down the various ways, from the nefarious to the innocent, that nuclear devices might claim millions of lives.
Experts in the whereabouts of old warheads — there are around 23,000 operational ones out there — tell chilling tales of lethal materials guarded by couldn’t-care-less Russians, while others recount littleknown historical episodes in Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours one of the nuclear plants in his country. The new documentary ‘Countdown to Zero’ discusses current, post-Cold War threats. which actual professionals nearly initiated nuclear war.
“Accident, miscalculation or madness” are the three foes John F. Kennedy named in a famous speech about the nuclear threat, and Walker gives each its due, making a forceful case for the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the planet — the “zero” of the film’s title.
She might cop out at times, employing lazy or sentimental imagery and urging viewers to take trivial steps toward pro- test, but she’s effective in reminding us that this — much more than the suddenly renewed interest in Russian spies — is a threat that mustn’t be forgotten behind more fashion-
able causes. Rating: PG for adult themes, incidental smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Theater: Arbor.
Sebastian Junger, left, and Tim Hetherington followed an Army platoon in the Korengal Valley. They also talked to soldiers after they returned home.