Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington came to SIFF 2010 with their acclaimed war doc Restrepo, which they filmed at great personal risk at a forward U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Those events were over two years past when we spoke; and the U.S. had just then withdrawn forces from the Korengal, to Junger’s dismay. Since then, further plans have been announced to withdraw all our troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Also during the interim, Hetherington was killed while covering Libya’s civil war. (Junger’s tribute, Which Way Is the Frontline From Here, played on HBO last year.)
So how is it that we are back in the Korengal with the same motley assortment of soldiers, the same Taliban firing at them, the same patrols and pastimes, the same boredom and complaints, the same hilltop quagmire as before? Essentially because Junger—and this is not to impugn his motives—had plenty of footage remaining, and he got talked into it. And there are worse reasons for making a movie. Back in ’10, Junger had also written a companion book, War, about the lure of combat to men. This time around he has less to say. And the soldiers essentially say the same things.
After finishing his tour, “I’d rather be there than here,” one nostalgic ex-soldier declares. Another, while at Restrepo, envisions it as a ski resort: “This place could be sports heaven, if they’d just stop shooting at us.” Of their mission to draw fire, says a soldier safely back in Italy, “We were definitely bait.”
The problem here is that the geopolitical situation has changed too much for Junger since filming in 2007–08 (before Obama’s election). Now there’s Bowe Bergdahl, the VA scandal, the recent elections in Afghanistan, and the new Republican fantasy that we ought to be putting more boots on the ground there and in Iraq, not less. We need to be looking ahead at this point, not back. Junger and Hetherington got some invaluably candid post-combat confessions from these young soldiers; but where are they today, six years later? Working at Walmart? Re-enlisted? On drugs? Married and coaching pee-wee soccer teams in the suburbs? How have these men been changed by a war that was mostly pointless and—after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden—inconclusive?
Culled from the archives, Korengal isn’t exactly a failure of journalism. It’s merely a footnote to a superior, then-timely film. But there’s little reason to see it today.
(Note: Korengal veterans Jeffrey Thompson and Damon Wilson are scheduled to appear with current soldier Elliot Alcantara on Friday. Congressman Jim McDermott is scheduled to appear with Vietnam vet and author Karl Marlante on Saturday. See landmarktheaters.com for details.)
Opens Fri., July 4 at Varsity. Rated R. 84 minutes.