Directed by: Sebastian Junger.
In 2010, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made the documentary Restrepo – which follows one platoon over the course of a year in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan – one of the deadliest and most dangerous areas in America’s War on Terror. That film was a fascinating portrait of the men who are fighting this war – what they go through and what they feel about their mission. It was a film that wasn’t about politics – none of the men really mention what they feel about the ultimate mission that politicians talk about. It was trying to survive – and fighting for the guys next to them, more than for the rest of the country. Now, four years later, Junger has made Korengal (Hetherington was tragically killed while covering another war – something covered in Junger’s documentary from 2013, Which Way to the Frontline from Here?). Korengal takes place in the same valley, follows the same soldiers, and has interviews with the men back at home as they reflect on those experiences. It is a fine documentary – a good companion piece to Restrepo. And yet, I don’t think it really adds much to what has come before.
The film continues talking to these men about their feelings about their mission. As it becomes clear during the course of the movie – they don’t much think about the politics of the mission. They are trying to do their job. They know that they are in a key position – a lot of Taliban fighters move through the area with supplies and weapons. The Taliban knows the area well – they move easily through the rocky mountains, with heavy gear, without an issue. The Americans struggle more – they don’t know the terrain as well. They don’t know the routes. Their heavy machinery exhausts them when they try to move it.
The movie also follows them when they try to talk to the various people who live in the valley – and the difficulty that comes with trying to win “their hearts and minds”. They almost don’t care about winning them – they know the people in the valley are in a tough spot – trying to appease them, the foreign army, and also having to deal with the Taliban, who could show up at any time. They have to try and win over the citizens – but know it’s a fruitless effort. Eventually they will leave, and the Taliban will still be there.
The movie is basically about how these guys try and survive there – going out on patrols that they know could turn deadly at any time. All the firefights they get into – which the men admit they miss know that their mission is over. That adrenaline rush is tough to top. They don’t much care if some of their behavior seems insensitive or bloodthirsty. They are just trying to survive – and fight for the people around them.
All of this is handled well by Junger. He obviously has a good report with the guys – and they open up to him more than they probably would with others. Yet, I cannot help but think that Junger (and Hetherington) already covered all this in Restrepo. The new movie is interesting – and well made. But it cannot have the same impact as Restrepo – which felt somewhat more revelatory. Here, it’s more of the same – and while that’s important, it also cannot possibly have the same impact.