Support the Troops: Make Better Documentaries

06/23/2010 4:00 AM |

Restrepo
Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

The moment of battle demands of the soldier a simplified moral outlook, an us-vs.-them narrative that denies the enemy his humanity. But that doesn’t mean a wannabe-visceral documentary about an American platoon stationed in The Most Dangerous Region Of Afghanistan needs to celebrate that regrettably necessary worldview. Directed by a pair of Vanity Fair contributors, Restrepo offers a soldier’s-eye view of the quagmire in Korengal, a portrait of fraternity whose production notes brag, “we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates”. This, of course, was to avoid Politicization—but why should willful ignorance be a source of pride? Since when is “context” synonymous with “subjectivity”?

The directors spent an entire deployment with the men, and were present for some intense firefights, though without much footage to prove it—just some jangly, disorienting handheld stuff made coherent by post-deployment interviews. The lack of compelling images reflects the confusion of the battlefield and the limited view of the warrior: like the frontliners, we have little idea who they’re fighting (“bad guys”), let alone a hint of why. The absence of any Afghani perspective encourages us to embrace the grunt’s moral binary, which might do the fighting man well in battle but does little for us at home, struggling to understand. Restrepo does a fair job of illustrating the terrifying violence of war, but it’s not without a point of view: it’s For the Boys, a loving, humanizing bit of jingoistic agitprop that wins festivals because nobody wants to appear, gulp, Anti-Troop.

Opens June 25

3 Comment

  • It is difficult to locate the thesis of this review. The reviewer acknowledges that the filmmakers at least intended to make a non-political film. The reviewer writes,

    “…Restrepo offers a soldier’s-eye view of the quagmire in Korengal, a portrait of fraternity whose production notes brag, “we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates”. This, of course, was to avoid Politicization…”

    The reviewer apparently thinks little of the intention to make a non-political film. The reviewer continues,

    “…but why should willful ignorance be a source of pride? Since when is “context” synonymous with “subjectivity”?”

    Perhaps, then, the reviewer’s thesis is that Restrepo fails because it is a non-political film, and non-political films are uninteresting (why not give us all of the context that we have available?). However, this conclusion is in tension with the reviewer’s explicit conclusion. The reviewer writes,

    “Restrepo does a fair job of illustrating the terrifying violence of war, but it’s not without a point of view: it’s For the Boys, a loving, humanizing bit of jingoistic agitprop that wins festivals because nobody wants to appear, gulp, Anti-Troop.”

    Perhaps, then, the reviewer’s thesis is that Restrepo fails because it tries to be non-political but ends up being political (being “for the boys”). If that is the reviewer’s thesis then, the reviewer apparently finds it too obvious to argue for. This commenter does not.

    There are at least four reasons to think that this film is not “for the boys”.

    First, as the reviewer strangely acknowledges, the filmmakers do not even interview a single Afghan. There is no attempt, that is, to undermine whatever perspective Afghans might bring to the conflict. We are straightforwardly left ignorant of that obviously central perspective — the blatant implication being that the film fails to give one sufficient information to judge the justifiability of the American acts depicted in it.

    Second, there is no third-party commentary on the events filmed. There is no attempt, that is, to manipulate our opinions regarding the significance of the footage we watch by having “experts” tell it to us. This might show that the filmmakers are merely trying to manipulate us directly with a barrage of flattering images of the soldiers, but…

    Third, we are regularly exposed to the unflattering as well as flattering images of the soldiers. For example, we see soldiers kill Taliban fighters in a video-game spirit, laughing and high-fiving when successful. We see the leader of the soldiers’ group condescend to Afghan village elders. And we see an American soldier whine like a little girl in the midst of battle. (We also see graphic images of young, dead, Afghan victims of a botched American bombing — though perhaps that does not afford unflattering images of the soldiers (in the film) themselves.)

    Finally, the film concludes with a prompt suggesting that even the principal American achievement of the film — the building of Restrepo under Taliban fire — may have been for naught. That prompt tells us that US forces abandoned the area soon after the filming.

    Perhaps the reviewer’s most confusing criticism — which bears uncertain relation to either of the above theses — is the following.

    “The directors spent an entire deployment with the men, and were present for some intense firefights, though without much footage to prove it

  • Thanks for the term paper, Justin; I’ll have one of the interns grade it before the week is through. But in the meantime, I’ll address a few of your points. Personally!

    “The reviewer apparently thinks little of the intention to make a non-political film.”
    Actually, the reviewer thinks little of the idea that such a thing exists. All films come out of some kind of ideology, and to pretend that “American ideology”=”no ideology”, as this film and many of its supporters do, is ridiculous.

    “the reviewer’s thesis is that Restrepo fails because it tries to be non-political but ends up being political”
    No, Restrepo fails, in part, because it pretends that the political is non-political: that fetishizing the troops is a neutral position. I do think the filmmakers are barraging us with flattering images. A few instances of the troops’ “warts” doesn’t really undermine that for me. You can have a celebratory documentary that shows its heroes aren’t perfect, too. (Michel Gondry’s “The Thorn in the Heart” springs immediately to mind.) In fact, imperfections makes them all the more sympathetic, no? All the more human? (Like the soldier “whining like a little girl”. Dude, his friend had just died.) And during the condescending meetings with Afghanis, I felt the film encourage me to condescend along with the soldiers, not side, affronted, with the Afghans. After all, without any input from Afghanis, they were just weirdos at best (LOL, why are their beards red?), “bad guys” at worst.

    Also, that the movie concludes by telling us the military ultimately abandoned the land the film’s heroes were fighting for is, like, the ULTIMATE example of troop-sympathy. Nothing honors our boys who died more than Finishing The Job they started–even if it means more dead soldiers, whose memories need to be honored with more finishing.

    Finally, “Restrepo also offers a deeply compelling portrait of the experience of American soldiers in a physically and morally overwhelming situation. That should be enough.” I think that’s the heart of our disagreement. What you saw as “deeply compelling” I saw as schmaltzy (watch the last five minutes and tell me this movie isn’t head over heels for American soldiers), confusing, and simple–reportage without a nut graf. That shouldn’t be enough, no, especially not when we’re talking about war.

    (Also, please note I’m not saying that American soldiers don’t deserve our sympathy: just that any documentary fawning over any group is problematic.)

    I’ll leave us with some Paddy Chayefsky (not the bit I was looking for, but without a DVD handy I’m reliant on IMDb), as I was thinking a lot about “The Americanization of Emily” while watching “Restrepo”:
    “War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war [WWII], we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us, it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.”

  • Henry, thanks for the response.

    You write, “All films come out of some kind of ideology”. What does this mean? Obviously, all films are the products of humans with aims. Equally obviously, all films come from a “point of view” in that they convey a limited range of information. A video-taped lecture on the mechanics of engines “come[s] out of some kind of ideology” in these two senses. I assume that you have a more interesting sense of the relevant phrase in mind. What is it?

    Of course, you don’t need the sweeping claim that all films “come out of a point of view” for your purposes. You can argue that Resptrepo in particular does this without arguing that all films do. But you failed to respond to the main reason that I offered for thinking that Restrepo doesn’t “come out of a point of view” in any interesting sense — namely, that it does not even *feign* to be objective. If I want to manipulate you into believing p via my film, then I will at least offer a cartoon of the perspective of those who reject p in the film, and I’ll suggest in the film that that perspective is bad. If all goes well, you’ll think that you’ve seen the whole picture regarding p and can rightfully conclude that p. But it would be inane of me to try to manipulate you into believing p by literally *only* offering the perspective of advocates of p and doing nothing whatever to indicate, let alone undermine, the perspective of advocates of not-p. Obviously, there will be advocates of not-p for any interesting proposition, p. This is all the more obvious when p is (something like) the proposition that Americans should be at war in Afghanistan, and so many Afghans vocally endorse not-p. The effect of a film that literally just presented the perspective of advocates of p would be to leave the (non-idiot) viewer at best agnostic as to whether p — since he would know full well that there’s another side of the story about which he’s heard nothing. In all likelihood, then, a film that only presents a single perspective on an issue — without even presenting a cartoon of the opposite perspective — is not trying to get you to take a stand on the issue at all. It’s trying to do something else. In the case of Restrepo, what I suggested that the film is trying to do is give you a sense of the experience of American soldiers in a physically and morally overwhelming situation. But, even if that’s wrong, the point of Restrepo can’t sympathetically be thought to be to get across a pro-American message regarding the war in Afghanistan — given that it doesn’t even pretend to tell you what you need to know to evaluate that message.