Dir: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

We don't often do documentaries here, but this one certainly merits praise, not least for being about the war in Afghanistan, without getting into the whole issue of the war in Afghanistan. It simply depicts one year in the life of Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. They are assigned to the Korangal valley, a remote, achingly beautiful part of Northeastern Afghanistan, on the front line of the fight against the Taleban, perceived by both side as strategically important. As if maintaining their existing position wasn't bad enough, they have to push into enemy territory and establish a new outpost, which they call 'Restrepo' after a colleague killed in action early in the tour of duty. They have to cope with the stress of coming under fire almost every day - sometimes on multiple occasions - while also dealing with the locals, who may or may not be helping the enemy, and get peeved when a local cow has to be shot after walking into the platoon's barbed-wire defenses.

Right from the start, with footage from inside a Jeep that gets taken out by an IED, this isn't your typical war movie. There's so much hand-held camerawork, Chris couldn't cope, and there are times when the results are completely chaotic and confusing. While I suspect this part of the point, it's difficult to get emotionally invested in proceedings, when you can't tell who's who. Even when there's another subsequent death, as part of the ill-advised Operation Rock Avalanche, I wasn't sure which soldier had been killed. However, it does a marvellous, terrible job of bringing home the reality of war, and the humanity of those who are fighting it: whether struggling to negotiate compensation for the cow, or silly dancing to Europop. But the most affecting moments are probably when the soldiers are safely back in Italy, and are just describing events. There's a stark honesty to their recounting of war realities that is chilling, setting you up for the sucker punch at the end: after more than 50 deaths and literally overnight, the US pulled out of the valley, rendering these men's hardship and sacrifice entirely in vain.

[January 2011]

War as hell
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