Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Restrepo, 2010, color film in SD and HD, 94 minutes. Production stills. Left: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne. Right: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo. Photos: Tim Hetherington.

IN APRIL 2010, the US military pulled its last combat troops out of the Korengal Valley, once regarded as the most dangerous posting of the war in Afghanistan. Now General Stanley A. McChrystal, who rejiggered what was a losing strategy into what likely remains a losing strategy—he moved the battlefront from isolated mountain valleys to more urban areas—is out, a victim of confusion and panicky politics in the White House and the Pentagon, and, of course, his own big, hubristic mouth. (I guess no one warned him how efficiently the hippie burnouts at Rolling Stone had besmirched Goldman Sachs.)

Callous though this observation may be, the McChrystal scandal seems made to order for the release of Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s heart-stopping and sometimes heartbreaking documentary about some twenty soldiers tasked with building and defending a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley from mid-2007 to mid-2008. On assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Junger, the writer, and Hetherington, the photographer, brought along a couple of video cameras when they embedded themselves with the Second Platoon of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The movie was assembled from 150 hours of footage shot during ten extended trips to the Korengal base camp and from there to Outpost Restrepo, a satellite camp built of sandbags, chicken wire, ammo boxes, and a couple of two-by-fours and named for the platoon’s medic PFC Juan Restrepo, killed in the early days of the fighting. The outpost is under constant fire from the Taliban, taking as many as four attacks a day, sometimes from as close as fifty yards. Junger and Hetherington did everything the soldiers did except fire weapons. Restrepo is nerve-racking from beginning to end, especially once one becomes involved—as the moviemakers clearly were—with the soldiers as individuals, most of them very young men who do not want to die and, even more, do not want to see their buddies die.

The action sequences are so intense one could overlook the complicated structure of documentary; it’s far from pure cinema verité. Soon after the film’s opening sequence—which shows PFC Restrepo, a week before deployment, horsing around in a home video and mouthing repeatedly into the camera “Going to war”—a more expertly handled camera is in a helicopter swooping vertiginously over the Korengal as it dodges fire, and we hear the soldiers’ dismayed assessment, as they glimpse the densely forested valley ringed with impassable mountains, that they’ll be “like fish in a barrel.” Then, seemingly without a break, the camera is falling, turned upside down in the hands of one of the moviemakers who’s scrambling from a truck that’s been half blown apart by an IED. The sound has dropped out—the recorder has been deafened by the blast, just as the men probably are—and we’re looking down the weirdly silent road at the vehicle, and at the men trying to get their bearings and figure out if anyone’s been injured.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Restrepo, 2010, still from a color film in SD and HD, 94 minutes. Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne and Private First Class Juan “Doc” Restrepo of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne on a train one week before their deployment to Afghanistan. Italy, 2007.

That’s just the beginning. The camera sticks so close to the soldiers when they’re in combat that it shudders with the recoil of their guns. It glimpses, over their shoulders, a fallen comrade. It jerks around as it follows the wary eyes of soldiers moving though thick brush: They know they are surrounded by Taliban, on the mission that most of them describe as the worst of their deployment. The camera is present, too, at a weekly meeting with the village elders, who sit in long rows on the floor, fingering their hennaed beards, yawning, frowning, trying to extort whatever they can from the Americans, whom they clearly despise—and not without reason, as we see when the camera roves around a house where there has been “collateral damage”: wounded children, five dead adults (or at least someone implies that the dead are all adults). And the moviemakers also capture moments of R&R: Three burly guys, their arms wrapped around one another, pogo as they belt out “Touch me, touch me now,” finding ecstasy by letting down their guard.

Threading the action footage together are talking heads—not outside experts, but the same soldiers. Three months after the platoon left Afghanistan, the filmmakers went to Italy to shoot portraits of the men, just before they finally went home. Each man was shot in close-up against a red or black background. On screen, the chiaroscuro lighting makes them look like Renaissance princes—their faces, even when pudgy with baby fat, look chiseled, bare to the bone. As they gaze directly into the camera, they describe their experiences in a mix of past and present tenses. The portraits are in every way the opposite of the action footage; they give us, even in the fragmented way they are edited and placed amid the “verité,” something of the interiority of the men’s experience, at once individual and collective.

No one in Restrepo analyzes the war in Afghanistan in political terms or even describes it in terms of goals larger than the day-to-day mission. And yet, simply by bearing witness, the movie is a call to action. It makes you want to put your fist in the mouth of all the media experts and commentators who, as I write, are demanding that we focus our attention on Afghanistan, without themselves having any firsthand experience. Junger and Hetherington focus on the war in Afghanistan, and their movie is evidence that the only conscionable course of action is to end it totally, right now.

Amy Taubin

Restrepo opens Friday, June 25 in New York and Los Angeles. For more details and images, see the film’s website here.