The ongoing documentary boom has produced its share of iconic images—the seagull swarm from Leviathan, Anwar Congo dry heaving at the end of The Act Of Killing—but none of them jolt like Restrepo’s celebrated opening, which includes a backseat view of a Humvee as it hits an IED. The interior of the vehicle turns dim gray; the windshield is piled with dirt and debris. Muffled, firecracker-like gunfire erupts. The camera darts out of the vehicle and on to a high mountain road. The audio is mangled, and the camera strap occasionally dangles in front of the lens. In less than a minute of screen time, Restrepo manages to encapsulate both the confusion of modern skirmish warfare and the experience of being a journalist in a war zone.
Restrepo’s directors, Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, spent months recording the day-to-day life of American soldiers stationed at an advance outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Junger’s self-distributed follow-up, Korengal, is composed mostly of outtakes from the project. It’s a much more conventional, TV-ready documentary than Restrepo, structured as a kind of oral history, more reliant on post-deployment talking-head interviews than on you-are-there footage. It’s slim and un-inquisitive.
Restrepo’s non-political, non-judgmental approach to the subject matter gelled with its grunt’s-eye view of the war in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t work as well in the past tense. Korengal deals with memories rather than realities, and yet leaves those memories unexamined. Whereas Restrepo foregrounded Junger and Hetherington’s footage over everything else, Korengal uses it mostly to illustrate stories told by its interviewees. (The “head in front of a black backdrop” interviews were also present in Restrepo, but played a much smaller role.) This is a movie about soldiers remembering their deployment at OP Restrepo, with no line of inquiry to give it shape. It doesn’t attempt to convey the immediate experience of war, and it lacks the framework necessary to examine how its subjects’ fond memories of Afghanistan may be distorted by time, distance, or their sense of disconnection from the civilian world.
Unsurprisingly, the best parts hearken back to the disorganized immediacy of the original: grainy, barely legible scenes of soldiers playing guitar, cleaning guns, or getting dressed while “Lapdance” blares in the background. None of them are as potent as anything in Restrepo; at best, Korengal is a glorified bonus disc, offering more views of the rocky terrain around OP Restrepo, and a little more time with the fresh-faced guys who spent their deployment stationed there.