Should one buy popcorn before watching a documentary about the cruel (albeit, sometimes thrilling) realities of war?
That’s one of the confounding contradictions posed by a theatrically-released war documentary such as Restrepo, the Sundance documentary that was directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Are we supposed to enjoy watching documentaries, like any other good ol’ summer popcorn movie, anyway? That’s always been the disconnect that has nagged at mass audiences and has helped keep docs in a ghetto, one only escaped when led by Michael Moore, fuzzy animals or cute kids.
But a war doc — that’s a particular kettle of film. For anyone who has clocked hours upon hours (as I have) watching war films starring or made by John Wayne, Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks and Chuck Norris, there’s a guilty, enjoyable kick to watching big guns and bad guys get their due. But a war doc like Restrepo, well, that changes the equation.
Thus, I was unsure whether I should buy popcorn. I don’t get to watch documentaries too often in the theater — I usually attend screenings insead, or receive DVD screeners. But having somehow missed Restrepo, and not wanting to miss it in theaters, I stomached the ungodly $13 charge for the ticket at the Angelika theater in New York City.
Early on, the case that docs are worthy of the theatrical experience was made loud and clear as I was hit with two trailers throbbing with sex and violence — Countdown to Zero promises nuclear annihilation with some very impressively scary graphics and Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel promises plenty of flesh (along with earnest portrayals of Hefner, who apparently was a savior of democracy).
And then Restrepo started. Although it is tempting to write a full review of this remarkable film, I’ll direct you to rottentomatoes.com for the many positive reviews. What I will say is that as much of a champion I am of the way documentaries like The Kid Stays in the Picture or In the Realms of the Unreal (POV 2005) or the best of Errol Morris manage to take nonfiction filmmaking to higher heights and raise the genre, Restrepo does this the old fashioned way: with a vital subject that is little understood (the war in Afghanistan); compelling, endearing and complex characters (the young U.S. soldiers); and great camera work (I’m not sure what camera equipment the filmmakers used, but the images are breathtaking).
Of course, it also takes directors who have the vision and skill (and, in this case, the guts) too tell a great story. In a nutshell, Junger and Hetherington get deeply embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan in 2007. They follow them into combat, into the mess halls, into their thoughts, fears and cowboy culture. OK, maybe the story of Restrepo is the one thing that lacks (the title is a reference to an American soldier in the platoon who dies). The film lacks narrative cohesion, and it can feel as chaotic as a firefight. But that didn’t bother me. The film feels raw. And, for me, that works. (There’s little doubt in my mind, even so early in the year, that this is the frontrunner for the Oscar for best documentary in 2010.)
Yes, I loved Restrepo. But not in the same way I loved Avatar or even The Hurt Locker. Restrepo is something different. It is thrilling, but it’s also meaningful, real, and very sad. It engages the heart, the mind, and even the testosterone-addled boy inside some of us. But why deny it? The soldiers themselves confess that war is a rush. We, in the audience, are naturally going to live vicariously through them. My heart was beating so fast, I could hardly breathe during some scenes.
So, I’m glad I didn’t buy that popcorn. I think I would have choked on it.