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4/5 (Out now; distributed by Dogwoof)
Though it's been going on for years now, some may find it easy to forget about the war in Afghanistan. Taking place in a foreign land half a world away, and the very topic being so entrenched in political debate, many are only marginally aware of the fact that day by day there is a conflict taking place. Meanwhile, sporadic news reports come through of the latest casualties accompanied by statistics that seem incredibly low when read in the paper.
With this in mind Restrepo comes not a moment too soon. The film eschews any attempts to sway the audience's belief system one way or the other; it has no ulterior message to carry and no political agenda. Focusing on one platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley considered one of the most dangerous postings in the US military - it doesn't seek to glorify the efforts of "our boys abroad, fighting the good fight". It simply tells their story in very real, very honest terms.
Being thrown in to the heart of conflict from the off, the audience is right there with the platoon every step of the way. Guns boom, shell casings fly, enemy rounds crack ground nearby. We see the elation of surviving skirmishes, the thrill of shooting the big guns and the unabashed pride in bagging a confirmed kill. We see initial attempts to win the hearts and minds of the locals with gifts of sweetly-flavoured rations and promises of wealth turn to barely-checked frustration as time goes on and the campaign plan falters. We see the boredom of stretches without action as the troops swap stories of the family farm back home or engage in friendly rough-housing, and attempt to placate the locals over the faux-pas of 'The Cow Incident'. All this is the calm before the storm of Operation Rock Avalanche, a campaign unanimously viewed by those involved to be the worst incident of their tour, which sees the patrol ambushed from all sides as confusion turns to panic and shock and casualties are taken. Grown men break down in tears over their dead comrades before having to suck it up and carry on as ever.
The real emotional moments, however, come in the up-close-and-personal interviews with the troops shown throughout. Conducted after their tour, the succession of pimple-faced youngsters with the rank of Specialist or Sergeant are able to truly reflect on their time both with candour and a look in their eye that speaks of experiences that shouldn't be known to those so young. The most gut-wrenching moment of the film comes when Specialist Cortez recounts with his ever-present, all-American smile how he has been prescribed every sleeping pill going in an attempt to sleep, though he prefers not to rather than suffer the nightmares. Just then his smile slips, and the true cost of human life is really brought home, not just of the dead but of those who have had to live through it.
While the conflict rages on overseas, and whatever your own views may be, Restrepo's combination of heart-stopping in-situ footage and moving interviews make it as real, as harrowing, as thrilling, as frightening, as emotional, close-up and knuckle-whitening a depiction of war as ever seen on film.
It's actually a great shame that normal multiplex distribution has to be so limited, but due to unique 'Ambassador screenings' there are far more opportunities to catch Restrepo throughout the country (more details of the programme can be found at http://restrepo.dogwoof.com/about-ambassadors/)