In 2010 filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made a startling documentary of a besieged squadron in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley called Restrepo, named after a fallen comrade, PFC Juan Restrepo. It plunged the viewer head first into the valley along with those men of the Second Platoon and gave a fresh and at times an alarming perspective of what it is like to be in combat.
After the film was released the filmmakers saw they had an extensive amount of film left over that could still be used to explore what it is like to be there, out in the field, alongside these soldiers, but there was a problem; filmmaker and journalist Tim Hetherington died while covering the Libyan Civil War. The remaining partner, Sebastian Junger, took on the difficult task of working solo and continued to bring about a followup documentary with the intention of approaching the same subject as Restrepo but from a different angle.
Before America pulled out of the Korengal Valley in 2010, forty-two soldiers died. Those same men seen in the previous documentary are seen here again, both in battle and in interviews filmed later at a studio. “We just had to accept the fact that we could die at any second,” states one of the soldiers.
The white-capped, mountainous region surrounding the Afghanistan valley that we first see has a beautiful, serene and cinematic quality to it. As a soldier remarks, the view was stunning and reminded him so much of what he knew of home, until reality struck. The moment he stepped off the helicopter he was shot at. “You know that fear is there,” another soldier explains, “But you just put it away.”
In some of the interviews we occasionally hear an off-camera question. “Why did you join the army?” A young soldier reflects on his reasons. “I don’t know,” he begins. “I wanted to be a sniper. Then I wanted to jump out of planes. To travel.”
There is also an exploration of bravery and what the word really means. One of the soldiers reflects on a fellow comrade and tells of how during a battle the comrade in question lost an arm and had shrapnel buried all over his face, yet he continued to ask if everyone else was okay. “Now, that’s bravery,” states the soldier.
But there are also long moments of boredom as soldiers wait in their ghetto-like makeshift huts; protective covers they have pieced together by chunks of plywood and rock and lit by a string of Christmas lights.. “Sometimes you wanna fight, just to pass the time,” states a soldier. Another tells of how the men sat around, passing the time, spending at least six hours of a long, boring day discussing who would win in a fight – George Clooney or Fabio. “I still say George Clooney would win,” insists an infantryman.
Korengal can’t help but fascinate. If you saw Restrepo you may question how valid a followup like Korengal really is – in many respects it feels more of the same – but that’s no bad thing. There’s emotional trauma to be witnessed, glimpsed in a way that we rarely see while sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes or in movie theatres, thousands of miles away. It’s also refreshing to hear unfiltered honesty in the revealing words of these infantrymen. “Fighting another human being is not as hard as you think when they’re trying to kill you,” a soldier states. “When you’ve cheated death, you just feel great,” states another. But there’s no rah-rah, patriotic flag waving to be seen or heard. “That’s the thing about war,” a soldier reveals. “You do a terrible thing and you have to live with it after.”
Restrepo illustrated what it was like to be in combat. Korengal examines what the act of war does to a soldier. What you get out of it depends on your status, whether you’re simply an armchair warrior giving opinions from the safety of your living room or perhaps a retired soldier who’s been there, done that, and knows exactly what those on screen infantrymen are talking about. As a father to a son about to join the corps and head to boot camp, it scared the heck out of me.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 93 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)