From May 2007 to July 2008, directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were embedded in the Korengal Valley to document U.S. troops stationed at the base, Restrepo. Their 2010 documentary, Restrepo, was a breathtaking portrayal of what war feels like, and it earned Junger and Hetherington an Oscar nomination for their efforts. Now, without any studio or broadcast backing, Junger—Hetherington died covering the conflict in Libya in 2011—returns to Restrepo’s unused footage and crafts a worthy companion piece: Korengal.
Restrepo is located in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, home to two major trafficking routes used by the Taliban. As Captain Dan Kearney explains, “You’re not in the Korengal to go hunt the bad guys. You’re in the Korengal, so the bad guys come to you, and you kill them.”
And come they do. The soldiers of Restrepo take fire every single day of the year. Forty-two American servicemen, as well as many Afghan soldiers, have died in that valley, earning it the nickname “The Valley of Death.” Fittingly, the base Restrepo was named after one of the fallen, Juan Restrepo.
While Restrepo was a documentary about a war, Korengal is the oral history of those who fought that war. There is Specialist Kyle Steiner, who survived a bullet striking his helmet and then recognized and celebrated his brush with death with tattoos of bullets carried by angel wings on his chest. Another soldier, Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne, is far too somber to celebrate. He knows that his actions have condemned him to hell, and the agony he feels is the knowledge that he did this to himself. People tell him, “You did what you had to do,” but O’Byrne bristles at the implication. “I didn’t have to go in the Army. I didn’t have to become airborne infantry. I didn’t have to do any of that. But I did. … Is that what God’s gonna say? ‘You did what you had to do.’ Punch you on the shoulder and say, ‘Welcome to heaven’? I don’t think so.”
The French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut famously stated that it was impossible to make an antiwar film, “for to show something is to ennoble it.” Junger and his editor, Michael Levine, smartly omit any major battle footage but include snippets from skirmishes. These moments—and how the soldiers react during battle—play in direct contrast to the interview footage taken post-deployment. With guns in their hands, they laugh, swear, and taunt fate. In the interviews, they show remorse, guilt, shame, and bafflement. Korengal is neither prowar nor antiwar. If Junger has a political opinion about this war, he has kept it to himself. Instead, Korengal shows the tortuous connection between the warrior and the war they fight.
“I’m not doing this for recognition from my country,” Specialist Sterling Jones says. “I’m not doing this so that somebody goes, ‘Wow. Those guys are really patriotic. Those guys are really brave.’ Truthfully, I could give a shit what anybody thinks, except for those guys to my left and my right. ’Cause that’s what it’s about. Those guys are what it’s about.”
Those guys are what Korengal is about.
Directed by Sebastian Junger
Produced by Nick Quested
Rated R, Running time 84 minutes, Opened June 1, 2014
A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 48, “Inside the hearts and minds of Restrepo.”
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