Sebastian Junger first won recognition as the author of "The Perfect Storm", after which he was touted as the new Hemingway. Now having read the book, and entertaining as it may be, that is stretching it a bit. But he has used his newly won fame to branch out into another direction as a fledgling film maker. Together with British photographer Tim Hetherington, Junger spent between June 2007 to June 2008 on the front line in Afghanistan, providing reports and pictures on an assignment for Vanity Fair. As a result of this experience he also wrote the bestselling book "War" 2010. "Restrepo" was also born through this same baptism of fire.
The documentary follows the daily lives of young soldiers from the second platoon, `B' Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, airborne of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, as they face a determined Taliban enemy in the Korangal Valley in the North Eastern part of Afghanistan. Junger himself says the film is no political or moral analysis, the camera simply follows the experiences of soldiers in daily front line contact with the enemy. This it achieves very successfully, and there are times when you want to duck beneath the parapet as the bullets fly. As an experiential viewer I was almost able to understand the fear that many soldiers must have regarding a bullet with their name on it. Tragically there was one for the platoon medic PFC Juan Restrepo, who was killed in early bitter fighting. Much of the action takes place at the besieged advanced outpost named after him, which had the feeling of a Fort Apache, Fort Zindernuff, being under constant threat of attack. It almost feels at times as if you are in an awful reality game, where your life is really at stake.
It was horribly fascinating to see American troops fighting in the same forbidding graveyard terrain that past armies from Britain and Russia had fought. The British are still of course fighting in Helmand. Korangal was dubbed appropriately the "Valley of Death" by US troops who fought there. On April 14th 2010, in a depressingly familiar story, the US military withdrew from Korangal having sustained unacceptable casualties for so little progress. Forty two US servicemen died fighting in the valley, and hundreds were wounded. Many more inferior equipped Afghan soldiers with poorer ballistic protection died. It was sad to see so many affable and impressionable young men thrown into combat in a totally alien environment, much as their counterparts would have done on D Day. One young soldier describes how his hippy parents prevented him from watching anything violent on TV. The camera then shows him putting down heavy fire into the valley. Life is full of strange contradictions, and it appears as if the mistakes of the past are being eternally re-enacted in a horrible merry go round. If you wish to understand what it is to be a front line soldier then this is the film for you. The film deservedly won the Grand Jury prize for a domestic documentary at the prestigious Sundance Festival in 2010.