Hetherington has form in the world of combat documentaries; he was cinematographer on the brutal Darfur genocide film ‘The Devil Came on Horseback’. Junger is a long-time war correspondent with ties to the film industry (he wrote the book that became ‘The Perfect Storm’). For ‘Restrepo’, the pair risked life and limb by embedding themselves with a group of fledgling grunts from Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the US Army, in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, the vicious epicentre of a disputed zone where the faint popping of machine-gun fire echoes across tree-lined hills.
Apart from showing how good humour, brotherly love and ad-hoc bouts of wrestling enable these soldiers to stay sane, ‘Restrepo’ brilliantly captures the dynamics of war and the way in which blissful silence can suddenly be punctured by gunfire. At the beginning, when Hetherington and Junger are being taxied in a Humvee, a vehicle in front of them runs over a landmine and a fire-fight breaks out. The sound of the guns is so intense that their microphone malfunctions, and the chaos plays out to a soothing ambient drone.
Intimacy is central to the film’s power. The camera lingers on the soldiers’ smiles and tears and shows the human face of military tactics which reduce people to chess pieces. Detailed testimony from soldiers offers sinister psychological context to the images and reveals that the film’s title comes from the name of a fallen comrade (Juan ‘Doc’ Restrepo) and a ramshackle sniper nest christened in his honour. This perfectly encapsulates one of the film’s key themes, which is that while some men may get a buzz from blasting a mortar shell into the unknown, others find solace in being reminded of their own mortality and that maybe it’s better to be ‘in the shit’ than to be stiff in a box.