Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Catching Up on 2010: The "War is Hell" Edition

When the story of the death of Pat Tillman, a football superstar turned soldier, started as one of simple casualty, became a heroic blaze of glory, and ended up as a tragedy of friendly fire, it was clear that higher forces were controlling the story. The government was using Tillman’s death as a publicity stunt, as war propaganda with the rosiest of tints. We only started to get the real story because of the dedication of Tillman’s family to figure out the truth behind whispered suspicions and because the official story didn’t seem to add up. What was worse, the cover-up or the refusal to acknowledge the cover-up? Amir Bar-Lev’s film pulls back the propaganda to reveal a portrait of who Pat Tillman really was, revealing the human complexities that show Tillman as more than a football star and as more than a good soldier. He was a hero, even if it wasn’t the kind of hero the Bush administration thought they needed. He was a young man, full of life and promise, with his time amongst his loved-ones cut way too short by a horrible accident of war. These loved ones show up in this film, his mother, his father, his wife, his brother, telling us not only about Pat’s life, but also about the struggle it took to find the truth when an entire presidential bureaucracy was standing in their way. Interviews with fellow soldiers and even a few officers help to round out the story. This is a devastating film that is by turns moving and maddening. It’s essential, expert reporting of a story that should not be forgotten.

Author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington shot footage of soldiers in Afganistan’s Korengal Valley, following one particular group through a fifteen-month deployment. One of the most charismatic of the soldiers was “Doc” Restrepo, who was killed just days after arrival. The soldiers were asked to take additional ground from the Taliban. They did so, and named their new outpost after their fallen comrade. This is Restrepo. The experiences we see these young people go through are remarkable. They fight and bleed and die for small tactical advantages. There is collateral damage. There are confusing, alienating encounters with the locals. Little is gained and much is lost. This is an important document of powerful verité filmmaking, creating a film that is compulsively watchable, that held me in its forceful, heartbreaking grip. It is a film of unbearable suspense and overwhelming emotion. This is essential witnessing, a film that is moving, overwhelming, and instructive. Some of the most unshakeable images in Restrepo are the youthful faces of the soldiers. In close-ups, these brave men stare straight into the camera and talk about the horror they have experienced. Their faces are youthful, but their eyes have wounded gazes. A scrawny kid scrambles up a hill, looking scarily similar to a boy playing dress-up as a soldier, toting around a plastic rifle. But this isn’t pretend. This is all too real. Here is war vividly shown in all its pointless, terrifying force.

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