Stripped to a minimum of editorializing (but, like The Hurt Locker, flush with sympathy), this Afghanistan-shot war documentary takes its cues from the unblinking style of cinema verit. There’s no narrator leading us through a single year in the craggy foothills of the Korengal Valley, a steep trench pinging with sniper bullets and constant enemy attack. An American-claimed outpost will come to be known as Restrepo, named after a fallen, beloved private. Getting to the end of this battalion’s tour is a tense, unnerving experience, divorced from a conventional arc and immune from even the most clichd comments: A soldier calls being under fire “like crack,” and you nod vigorously.
Embedded directors Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist, and Sebastian Junger (he wrote The Perfect Storm) have years of combined experience in battle zones; they use the opportunity to capture as closely as possible the anxieties and attitudes of fighting men, from their horseplay to tears. (We even wig out with them once, in a euphoric dance-off.) The result is very close to anthropology—not for nothing is the doc’s distributor National Geographic. For politicized viewers, such a nonjudgmental keyhole won’t be enough. Still, these are exactly the people who should see Restrepo, or risk not fully feeling what is meant, politically, by “loss of treasure,” never just a cost of international prestige or ideals, but a human one.—Joshua Rothkopf