Back to Basics, by David Bax
Back in early 2011, when we counted down the top ten films of the previous year on the podcast, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo came in a number ten on my list. So my interest was strong in the follow-up, Korengal, directed by Junger (Hetherington was killed a few months after Restrepo‘s release). The basic elements of the two films are the same. And therein lies the weakness. The abundant similarities give this new film an undernourished feel.
Korengal, like Restrepo, documents the lives of one group of soldiers stationed at an outpost called Restrepo in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Their location is remote, the valley is among the most dangerous places in the country, their defenses are often tenuous and, any time they so much as step outside the base to do things like visit villages to win hearts and minds, they are terrifyingly exposed and vulnerable. Junger doesn’t bother much with issues like the justification of this war or the future of Afghanistan. He is concerned with knowing, literally, what is it like to live and fight in this environment, both in terms of simple routine and the effects on the psyche.
It is impossible not to compare Korengal to Restrepo. Given how similar the footage is (if there’s no recycled footage, there might as well be), Junger would be disingenuous to ask you not to scrutinize with the earlier film in mind. It’s not that Korengal is found lacking, only that it is found slightly hollow in its sameness. The ball-busting is still funny; the firefights are still bracing; the fraternity is still palpable. It just isn’t as fresh.
If Korengal does individuate itself aesthetically, it is in its approach to the violence. Some of the men insist that the best part of the job is engaging with the enemy, even with bullets carrying death snapping past their heads. Junger allows us to experience that rush, setting a chaotic firefight montage to rollicking rock music in one of the film’s best sequences.
That’s certainly the most exciting moment in the film but the other stand-out is an interview in which a soldier is tormented by worries that, no matter what he’s been told about war, God won’t forgive him for the lives he’s taken. Even after displaying heartbreaking despair, though, he insists that he wouldn’t do anything differently if he could. He made a choice and, in doing so, pledged to do what it takes to keep his fellow soldiers alive. He’s not the only one to express the sentiment. One man, in an interview conducted after having left Restrepo, admits that even though he loves his wife, he’d go back to the valley in a heartbeat.
When Junger is detailing the mundaneness of life at the outpost or the gearhead geekiness with which the soldiers discuss their tools of the trade – weapons – it’s easy to think that this is just a job. Which it is. But, of course, it’s also not. How many of us have jobs that require us not only to put our lives on the line for our coworkers but to want to do so? There is plenty of frustration to be found in wishing Korengal differentiated itself from its antecedent. But depoliticized and empathetically honest documentaries about those who fight for their country are few and far between. Two similar ones in four years isn’t that bad a deal.