Documentary films are very different from the narrative films we usually see at the twelve-plex. Far too many of them are made for political reasons. The few that make it into general release, and into our commercial theaters, are usually more subtle.
I remember a few with some pleasure. “Trekkies” (1997) managed to let extreme Star Trek fans be themselves and was, consequently, very amusing. The stylish “Thin Blue Line” (1988) may suggest that its maker, director Errol Morris, didn’t himself understand the facts he assembled about a criminal investigation.
The only first-rate documentary I’ve seen the last few years was 2010’s “Restrepo,” a movie about soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. It was nominated for an Oscar, not that that’s any proof of its quality.
Co-director Tim Hetherington has since been killed (in Libya). His collaborator, Sebastian Junger, has now taken film shot during their year “imbedded” with the second platoon of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, film that didn’t appear in “Restrepo,” and has put it with cut up bits of new interviews with the soldiers who are now in the U.S.
The result, “Korengal,” is an odd sort of movie. Like its superior predecessor, it is about a little hunk of the war, the experiences of a few recognizable soldiers. It is about their little fortified outpost—named after the late medic Juan Restrepo, who served there—in a valley the Taliban uses as a supply highway. It is about the Americans’ patrols and their contacts with the cliff-dwelling Afghans. It is about their cursing, their tattoos, their card playing, their college-dorm style philosophic conversations, and their recollection of fallen comrades.
The film seems closed off visually, probably because those doing the filming were being protected from the multiple daily attacks that the soldiers lived through month after month. And yet viewers will see the steep, forested hillsides of the Korengal valley and the important landmarks—the Nipple, the Ranch House, and so on.
One is taken inside meetings with Afghan elders, and one hears them complain about the visits of Pashtuns, so that their experience of the battle has to do with race.
So does the American side. The squad’s only African-American member comments on how the others think of him. Then, in his later state-side interview, he makes the strongest statement about the deep friendship that seems to be the primary motivator of many American servicemen.
They also like shooting guns. As the film goes from topic to topic, it shows them cataloging their favorite weapons. We also see them doing some shooting, though the action in “Korengal” seems less dangerous than did that in “Restrepo.”
Still, this is a real war we see depicted. In one passage we see a Bronze Star awarded to a soldier who has told us about his early combat greenness.
Junger has not tried to make the new film stylistically different from the original, at least not in obvious ways. And so it feels a little like what it is—footage that wasn’t needed for the original movie.
We can pretend to know that the director made this sequel because he wanted to keep his partnership with the late Hetherington going. Or we can assume that “Restrepo” was enough of a hit that he wanted to do what many, many movie-makers do these days—he wanted to capitalize on the fame of the original movie.
What he’s turned out, for whatever reason, is a lesser but not completely ineffective sequel. I think most folks will prefer “Restrepo” to “Korengal.” Those movie-lovers who really enjoyed the earlier movie will, however, find there are passages of interest in the new one.