One pla­toon turns into larger pic­ture

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE - By Jody Se­aborn

“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.

Con­tin­ued from D1

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.

Tim A. Hether­ing­ton

Se­bas­tian Junger, left, and Tim Hether­ing­ton fol­lowed an Army pla­toon in the Koren­gal Val­ley. They also talked to sol­diers af­ter they re­turned home.

tim Hether­ing­ton

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