When I was in journalism school, I had a professor who just fawned over Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. He said they were among the elite in the profession, that these were men we should strive to emulate in our careers. Their war documentary, Restrepo, shows the kind of journalistic ambition and integrity that I heard about all through college. It’s an incredible piece of honest, simple storytelling. My problem with it as a film is that it’s not inherently cinematic. As much as I admire what these two men have done, I have to judge Restrepo as a film, and as such, it’s compelling but imperfect.

The film outlines a year with a group of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, one of the most dangerous places on the planet. One of the men, “Doc” Restrepo, is killed one of the first men killed, so his fellow soldiers decide to construct an outpost and name it after him—O.P. Restrepo. We see the men in the heat of battle, as well as dealing with the boredom of being at war when there’s no fighting to be done. Ultimately, the story is simply about these men and the way the war shapes their behavior.

Where last year’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, had a clear message, Restrepo has no agenda. It simply shows you these individuals. It makes no qualms about being a definitive portrait of war or a soldier’s life, but it does want to show you how these nine or ten men get through their assignments.

Because the film doesn’t really have a narrative arc, however, it feels both underdeveloped and incomplete. I would’ve liked to see more about Restrepo the man and how he impacted all of these men. The payoff could have been more powerful with a few scenes developing his relationship with the rest of the soldiers. I understand that touches like this don’t really work with what Junger and Hetherington are trying to do, but I can’t help but feel this would’ve been a better cinematic experience if they were a bit more flexible in this way.

Still, Restrepo is an enlightening documentary that every American should see. It gives you a real insider’s look at the men fighting for us and the hardships they face. It’s not entertaining. It doesn’t have amazing production values. But it’s a great example of good, old-fashioned storytelling.

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