This week’s DVD pick is not “Inception,” and not just because I’m not really a fan of the film. It’s also the most obvious big DVD/Blu-ray release out today and I’m sure enough sites will be highlighting this fact. My pick is instead “Restrepo,” which also is sure to be recommended plenty but not nearly on the same scale. And I’m more in the mood to discuss this film, pausing from the continued “Inception” theories for just one day at least. The documentary, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year and more recently the filmmakers won the Best Directorial Debut honor from the National Board of Review. It’s also sure to be on many top 10 lists and will likely receive an Oscar nomination. And if that’s not enough to tell you it’s worth your time, well, it’s also available on Netflix Watch Instantly beginning today so you can easily give the first action-packed few minutes a try.
Is it okay that I refer to this real-life exchange of bullets as “action-packed”? It’s a tricky thing with documentary films, particularly those dealing with tragedy, to consider them in terms associated with entertainment. But “Restrepo” tasks me with thinking about the line between non-fiction and fiction war movies, mainly because it often feels like a dramatic film rather than a doc. Sure, there are plenty of traditional doc elements, most notably interviews. However, because the filmmakers embedded themselves so deeply into the lives of an American platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, there’s so much first-hand footage that feels like a well-produced war movie and much of the time it’s easy to forget you’re not watching reality.
Like with my other favorite doc of 2010, “Last Train Home,” I’ve constantly recommended “Restrepo” on this basis of how it feels like a dramatic feature rather than a documentary. Yet also like “Last Train Home,” the most powerful moment of “Restrepo” comes when the film suddenly breaks from that feeling. For the other film it concerns an unexpected acknowledgment of the camera just following an act of violence. In “Restrepo” it’s a substitute for violence. It shouldn’t spoil anything for you to reveal that at least one “character” is killed during the film’s central battle, but unlike in a dramatic war movie, this death can’t really be ethically depicted, even if Hetherington and Junger captured it on camera. Instead they cut to an extended segment of interview footage as other soldiers describe the scene as it occurred. And it’s far more emotional than any death scene I can recall from any war movie, drama or documentary. There is some intercutting with footage on-site of the soldiers reacting at the time, one of whom is in tears, and that certainly adds to it, but it wouldn’t be so memorable without those retrospective interviews, conducted long after the fact.
Between this and parts of “Inside Job” and “Client 9,” I’m beginning to have a new appreciation for interviews in documentaries this year. Anyone else?
Rent or stream “Restrepo” as soon as you can.