erik lundegaard

Saturday June 26, 2010

Why Jeff Wells is Wrong about “Restrepo”

Two documentaries about the war in Afghanistan played during the recent Seattle International Film Festival: “Restrepo” and “The Tillman Story.”

I thought “Restrepo” one of the best docs I've ever seen. I thought “The Tillman Story” OK but hardly news.

My reaction turns out to be the exact opposite of Jeff Wells' reaction over at Hollywood Elsewhere. What I loved about “Restrepo,” he hated. What I disliked about “The Tillman Story,” he loved.

Our disagreement doesn't have much to do with politics. We're both lefties.

Our disagreement has to do with aesthetics. What's the point of a documentary? What's the point of a war documentary? What's the point of art?

I'll leave the “Tillman” doc alone. Suffice it to say that people should see it. Particularly if they haven't read Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,“ or are part of the ”Miss Me Yet?“ crowd. Or if they're George Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or... You get the idea.

As for ”Restrepo,“ Wells feels it fails because it fails to give us the big political picture. In a post he calls ”Afghanistan Bananistan,“ he writes:

I think I'm done with war documentaries that make a point of not offering any sort of opinion about anything — no history or context, no political point of view, just ”this is war, war is hell, taste it.“ Well, I'm sick of that shit after seeing Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, a bravely captured, technically first-rate documentary about a year under fire in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, a.k.a., ”the valley of death.“

There's no question whatsover that this movie lies through omission about what's really going on in Afghanistan in the broader, bigger-picture sense. I found myself becoming more and more angry about this after catching Restrepo two nights ago at the Walter Reade theatre, and especially after doing some homework.

In my review of ”Restrepo,“ written three weeks before Wells posted the above, I wrote:

“Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 10 years.

”Dedalean sense“ is a bit hifalutin but it refers to Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce's ”A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.“ His definition of art is known to almost everyone—like myself—who wasted their college years as an English major:

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

Most movies are kinetic. Most documentaries are didactic, and you double-down on the didacticism if the doc is political. Wells, I would argue, wants ”Restrepo“ to be didatic. He wants it to say what he already knows—or what he finds out when he does his homework. That, I would argue, would be an OK doc but it wouldn't be ”Restrepo.“ ”Restrepo,“ I would argue, is better because it doesn't do this.

Another hifaultin quote about art, this one from Norman Mailer:

Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

Part of the power of ”Restrepo“ lies in its restraint, in all that it holds back, in all that we feel as a result. It makes us care about these men and makes us wonder why they're there, and whether they should be there. We do this work, not the doc. We do this homework, if we haven't already. That's part of everything we bring to it. From A.O. Scott's review yesterday:

Like most movies of its kind, “Restrepo” avoids any explicit political discussion. The soldiers can’t wait to leave Korangal but are also determined to carry out their duties, and they don’t have the time or inclination to reflect on larger causes and contexts. But in their close observation of just how the war is being conducted, Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington provide plenty of grist for political argument. They also reveal one of the irreducible, grim absurdities of this war, which is the disjunction between its lofty strategic and ideological imperatives and the dusty, frustrating reality on the ground.

What are these guys doing there? It’s hard to watch this movie without asking that basic, hard question.

”Restrepo“ is a brilliant doc for other reasons as well. It sows confusion the way Afghanistan itself sows confusion. What is Restrepo? First it's a soldier. Then it's a dead soldier. Then it's an outpost, the furthest outpost in the Korangal Valley, named for this dead soldier. It's a name that hovers over everything.

The incident with the cow? First it's funny. Then it's happy (”That was a good day“). Then it's neither funny nor happy. It's yet another incident between the U.S. troops and the Afghan villagers that might be good but is probably bad. It's worrisome.

What about the enemy? It's an unseen enemy. We hear them fire on these men, and on the documentarians, but we never see them. Not once. That we know of. That, too, is worrisome.

Are we doing good there?

Is it worth it?

Should we leave?

What happens when we leave?

Hetherington and Junger trust us to come up with our own answers to these questions. They trust us to make that small leap of the faculties that leave us an increment more exceptional than when we began.

”Restrepo" opened yesterday in New York and L.A. It opens in Boston, Philly and Chicago on July 2; San Francisco, Houston and D.C. on July 9; and Dallas and Seattle on July 16.

Posted at 07:01 AM on Saturday June 26, 2010 in category Movies  
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