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MOVIE REVIEW: Restrepo

One of the best documentary depictions of a war zone

Restrepo: Rates a B+.
Courtesy photo

I’ve never cared much for war movies.

Here are a few that come to mind and the reasons they bothered me.

Casualties of War. Michael J. Fox looked like he was 12, and when he had to yell at Sean Penn over something serious (raping a civilian), I almost laughed.

Full Metal Jacket. The drill sergeant was so over-the-top, it didn’t even seem believable. When he yelled at soldiers, instead of being scared, I almost laughed.

Apocalypse Now! I loved it, although there was something about all the lines the actors said that made me think it was just a series of catch-phrases.

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” etc. When Wagner is played from the helicopters before they attack, I almost laughed.

Saving Private Ryan. It starts with what could be a powerful intro – an old war vet visiting his fallen comrades at a cemetery. Instead that just comes across as cliché. And when they storm the beaches of Normandy, what could’ve been a powerfully intense scene (just watching and hearing the bullets coming into the boat before they’ve gotten into the water would be enough). Instead, they do the Hollywood thing and go over the top. We see one guy shot in the head. We see fish getting shot. We see a guy lose his arm, look for his arm, find his arm, pick it up and run off. I almost laughed.

In the documentary Restrepo, nothing comes close to making me laugh. And if war is hell, nothing should make you laugh. Not that they don’t have a few calm moments of levity here and there (one guy trying to explain to another guy over the walkie-talkies about what kind of farm he was raised on).

There weren’t all that many gun fights. When we do see them, they’re scary. It feels so much scarier than any Hollywood war film, and there are a lot fewer airplanes, helicopters and bullets whizzing overheard.

We don’t see many deaths, but there are a few. One is the best soldier they have, which is really scary for the rest of them.

We see another guy lose it after his friend is shot and killed. He’s crying, pacing around, and frantically asking questions. Some soldiers tell him that the guy is going to the medic and will be okay. Another says “It happened quick,” as if that’ll make him feel better. It’s gut wrenching.

The movie deals with a 14-month mission in the Korengal Valley (which CNN called the most dangerous place in the world). When a medic named Juan “Doc” Restrepo is killed, they end up naming an area they took over in a hostile area after him.

The movie was made from 150 hours of footage, and contains interviews with the soldiers after their deployment. Those interview segments are just as interesting as the battle scenes.

One soldier talked about all the death, with a huge, nervous smile on his face.

Another talked about his hippie parents, and not being allowed to have any kind of gun growing up.

“Even a squirt gun I had when I was 10. It was a turtle. That got taken away because it was a type of gun.”

You gain so much respect for what soldiers do. And I have to admit, I gained more respect for their intelligence. I guess I always just had the stereotypical thoughts of who joins the military and the things I’ve seen in movies, or the military guys I played basketball with at Miramar base for 15 years.

It was so interesting to see another side of these soldiers; the way they had “pep talks” or discussed strategy.

Sure, they did the same stuff you’ve seen in the fictional war pictures – wrestling, cursing, dancing, etc.

And a few things we haven’t seen in war movies before – being on detail that burns the poop from the camp, or having to deal with a local elder who wants payment for a cow that got caught in their barbwire and had to be shot.

(He wants $700, and isn’t happy when the soldier says they can give him sugar, beans, and rice – the same weight the cow was.)

I enjoyed the fact that this movie didn’t have any political leaning one way or the other.

Sure, it may have lost its narrative focus at times, but ya know what? I didn’t care. I was entertained watching this powerful piece of filmmaking.

(I thought the ending should’ve shown the name RESTREPO, and had the “RE” in the middle, fall from the name. The letters “IN” inserted there, and the “P” then spell out “Peace.” It would’ve ended going from his name to RESTINPEACE)

I don’t think you have to just be a fan of war movies or documentaries to enjoy this picture (it feels weird even using the word “enjoy” to describe this).

I’m giving it a B+.