Friday, July 16, 2010

Restrepo Reviews

On Friday, Alma, Gunslinger and I (plus a couple others) went to see Restrepo. Alma and Gunslinger will update the post as soon as they get a chance. I hope Gulliver and MK will do the same as soon as they've seen it. Of course, if you've seen it, we hope you'll add your own comments and tell us what you thought.

UPDATE: I've added my thoughts and bumped this to the top. -Gulliver

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect going in. We ended up sitting in the very front row (we didn't get there that late, the show was just sold out). Anyway, being so close made me a little queasy at first and then I got used to it. Overall, I thought it was interesting--though a little long. I've never served and I've never been to Afghanistan so I always think it's interesting to see what a place looks like (beautiful), the conditions that soldiers live in, and get a feel what it might have been like.

In terms of substance, I don't think that the film painted the soldiers and their officers in the most flattering light. The captain basically boasting at the beginning that he hadn't read anything to prepare because he didn't want to be tainted by what he might have read honestly seemed pretty stupid. I mean, if you can educate yourself in advance, why wouldn't you? Gunslinger has educated views on their performance/leadership under fire so I'll leave that analysis to him. I did find it shocking that the NCO so thoroughly lost it during the ambush.

I thought the film would have been easier to follow if the directors had picked fewer perspectives from which to tell the story. I also think it would have been interesting to provide a deeper point of view from fewer people. Thinking back on length, if the film intended to provide perspective on how tedious, long and repetitive deployments can be, then it succeeded. Overall though I thought it was interesting and definitely worth seeing.

I finally went to see Restrepo on Tuesday after work in downtown DC. The film is showing at the E Street Cinema, I suppose now that it's gotten full distribution through alliance with National Geographic. I'd been trying to figure out a way to see it for weeks, but wasn't able to get a ticket for the only two showings in the national capital area, at the AFI Silver Theater documentary festival up in Silver Spring.

Having decided to go to that particular showing of the movie pretty last-minute, I'd forgotten having seen a notice on the Restrepo Facebook page that Sebastian Junger would be at the DC theater signing posters and books following the early-afternoon showing. When I walked into the lobby, there was a line of several dozen people waiting to meet the author of War. It was a little surprising -- though pleasantly so -- to see that the book and movie had generated so much interest.

As far as the actual film is concerned: I thought it was very good. Having said that, I'm very surprised to tell you that I felt like the book was more effective in conveying the sense that Junger intended, which is to say "what it feels like to be at war." Now of course a documentary film is going to largely be about documenting events, and the filmmaker is limited by what he's physically exposed to, camera in hand. (This is one of my complaints about the film, actually, though it's one that couldn't really be addressed: many of the most meaningful and significant events described in the book do not appear in the film, and many are not even referenced. This is, of course, a limitation of being just one or two dudes with one camera, and you can't be there for everything.)

My big takeaway, however trite it sounds, is just that these guys are so freaking young. I say this as someone who frequently interacts with soldiers and Marines, who is well aware of the demographic data of the force, who reads casualty announcements marking the deaths of very young men, and who knows intellectually that a whole bunch of specialists and lance corporals are 19 or 20 years old... these guys are so freaking young.

I'm not in a position to critique the behavior of the soldiers featured in the film or the leadership of their officers, not only because I'm not a subject matter expert in combat leadership, but also because a filmmaker necessarily makes decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, and I don't think it's fair to assess performance without real, sustained exposure to actual events. (I know it's a novel idea: don't make judgments without all the info.) I've seen several complaints about CPT Kearney's opening interview in the film, where he admits to not having studied up on the Korengal before deployment so as to see the AO with fresh eyes. He's also been criticized for the way he spoke to local elders about his predecessor during several shuras, expressing a sort of "new sherrif in town, we're not operating like those old jerkoffs" kind of attitude. Even on this I think we should reserve judgment: it may not make friends in the Army, but if this guy's professional judgment is that the best way to win the support of the elders is to throw the previous unit under the bus, then hey, we're all adults here. (It may be worth reminding people that when GEN Mattis was prepping his Marines for their deployment to Anbar Province in late 2003, he seriously considered having them wear green woodland camo and black combat boots so as to differentiate themselves from the DCU- and desert boots-clad soldiers of the 82nd, who were the prior ground-holders. He only relented when the 82nd's CG personally expressed his sense that this was a personal affront.)

So in summary, good film. Great opportunity to give your average viewer who doesn't think too much about Afghanistan a sense of what it's like to sit in a remote, isolated base and get shot at for 15 months. Had I not read the book previously, I would certainly say that this is the best movie I'd seen all year. It's only my very slight disappointment at the mismatch between written word and moving picture that keeps me from giving Restrepo a full 5/5.


  1. Thanks for the review Lil. I was supposed to go to a pre-release screening around here, but unfortunately couldn't make it.

    I've seen varied reviews. The "milbloggers," or whatever all seem to like it but I've seen the blandest (and frankly oddest) reviews in the general entertainment media. I don't know what that means.

  2. Saw it in DC yesterday with Sebastian Junger giving out signed posters as a bonus. I rate it as a solid B but it's missing context. Watching Capt Kearney's shura's was painful to watch, but without the great context of his relationship with them, and what had occured before (I'm not sure what the translator conveyed to them but he bascially threw his predecessor under the bus) it was hard to see what effect he was having. But judging him and his company's performance is pretty pointless based on two hours of edited footage during a year plus deployment. That said it did as good a job as you can see showing the banality of life in the OP (many laughs from the soldier simutaneously holding a conversation while adjusting his MK19 and I wasn't expecting to hear Samantha Fox again after 20 years).

    I will say the by far the best and most powerful part was Rock Avalanche. Watching a burned out Capt Kearney call in an airstrike after probably no sleep and plenty of stress for 3 days or more was interesting. Most powerful of course the death of their sergeant. That experience for the uninitiated is a priceless window.

    Still, I'd rank it below Combat Diary - The Marines of Lima Company, but to be fair I was getting running commentary from a doc who was there and was in charge of the remains of the 14 Marines killed in their AAV in August '05. Watching the documentary was the first time he saw them alive. But overall that documentary did a better job IMO in putting where their deployment stood in the bigger picture.

    But bottom line Restrepo: go see it.

  3. Thanks Boondoggle--Agree on throwing your predecessor under the bus (which he actually did a couple other times as well).

  4. Gulliver--fair point on assessing leadership, we may not have seen a full picture. Still--what are other things you could do differentiate yourself from a predecessor?

  5. Still--what are other things you could do differentiate yourself from a predecessor?

    I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. But why are we worried about "other things you could do" when it seems pretty clear that saying "I'm not like the last guy" is the clearest and simplest thing?

  6. Because if your point is you shouldn't criticize a leader that you don't know well and that you haven't seen in action then saying "I'm not the last guy" is a copout. It says, I'll rip the last guy (just like he ripped his predecessor), the next guy will rip me...what kind of message does that send to the interlocutor?

  7. Why do you think that everyone is going to criticize his predecessor? My point is that this Kearney dude may have had a point, or he may have just recognized that his Afghan counterparts were disappointed with the prior guy in some way and thought he could gain ground by dumping on him, too. It might've been the right decision and it might not, but I don't think we're in a position to evaluate that.

  8. I've got to side with Gulliver on this issue. I did the same thing and fully expected my successor to follow suit. It's not personal. Every unit is going to do something wrong. One of the few positive aspects of our frequent unit rotations is that the incoming unit can identify what the previous unit did wrong and then try to assure the locals that the slate has been wiped clean of that previous BS and the incoming unit is only continuing with what was done right.

  9. Thanks Schmedlap--that answered my initial (badly worded) question...I think we only saw the "they did this badly" and not the "we've learned from their mistakes and we're not making them again. In fact, we're trying Y as an alternative." Just saying the other guys sucks struck me as the copout part, looking for better solutions is not.

  10. Good reviews. Keep em coming. I missed the Fayetteville showing last night b/c I'm up in Raleigh so I'm gonna have to wait a bit to see the movie.

    I tend to agree with Schmedlap and Gulliver. We've exhausted the issue on getting to know and try to understand the people that you're working with (i.e. cultural awareness), but we haven't really dug deep (we being the existing literature) on what to do once you gain a foothold in the human terrain.

    In economic/game theory terminology, it's all about negotiation and bargaining strategies. What will work to force the behavioral change that you are seeking? If that means selling out the last guy, then do it. As Schmedlap said, it's not personal, it's business. One thing that I did like about Craig Mulhanney's memoire was his emphasis on "it's not about you."

    In a hostile, semi-permissive environment, one may have to employ measures once known as psychological warfare- psychops, deception operations, bluffing, and coersive carrot and stick approaches.

    To approach the issue otherwise is just outright naive. The tribal leader sitting across from you is doing the same thing even if you personally like each other. He's looking out for his tribe. You have to look out for yours.

  11. We're talking past each other...There's a difference between throwing the other guy under the bus (by saying things like, X was an idiot, his troops were incompetent) and saying "I know X and his troops made mistakes, what were they--tell me so I can avoid them." The former is an easy way out and likely counterproductive. The latter, what Schmedlap described struck me as entirely different again "the incoming unit can identify what the previous unit did wrong and then try to assure the locals that the slate has been wiped clean of that previous BS and the incoming unit is only continuing with what was done right." This is NOT in my view, throwing the previous guy under the bus, it's learning from his mistakes, trying to understand the people you're dealing with, moving on, and trying to do things better this time.

  12. Lil,

    If my successor tells the local shura, "Schmedlap was a douche and we're not doing [insert something I did that pissed off locals] anymore," - that's cool with me. That's not throwing me under the bus. That's just a negotiating tactic.

    Now, if my successor says that to Junger, rather than the shura, then I'll free up some space on my calendar so that we can throw down at the earliest opportunity.

    I didn't see the movie, so I'm not sure which scenario you had in mind.

  13. Schmedlap--I'm talking about scenario one.

  14. Lil,

    We're not talking past each other. I just didn't proofread my first comment. Schmedlap at 11:18 is closer to what I meant.

    If someone is bashing a previous unit b/c his/her personal views of that unit, then that is foolish.

    If they're doing it in a calculated attempt to gain an advantage, render trust, or change the tone of the conversation, then that's okay in my book.

    1. The truth of the matter is that the Capt could have conveyed the message without ever mentioning his predecessor. Simply stating that this is the way things are going to be done under my command. That he is unaware of what happened prior to his arrival, that he intends to do things this way, explain his own objectives ask the elders to clean the slate so that they can move forward without rehashing things that nothing can be done to change. The captain referred to his predecessor several times by name to the elders and his own soldiers several times. To me it is very unprofessional, self serving and is simply grandiose possibly masking his own insecurities. Confident leaders do not have to disparage others to demonstrate they are good leaders there actions are all the talking they need to do.

  15. Mike--we agree. The scene from the film I don't think gave enough context to tell which one it was.

  16. Here's an ethical dilemma for y'all to critique. I still don't know if how I responded was wrong or not, but, in my defense, it was 10 months into the deployment at a time when I didn't really care to suffer fools.

    MAJ Aziz, my IA counterpart, and I had become extremely close after fighting together for three months. By this time, our units were one unit, and soon, he was going to take the lead in Zaganiyah. Actually, we later devised a plan for him to "sell me under the bus" by publicly rebuking me so that the elders would know that he was now in charge.

    Anyways, we would get together for at least one meal a day and just relax hanging out together. One night, he asked me (literal translation),

    "Mike, what's up with your boy CPT X down in village B? He's an ass-clown."

    Personally, I felt the same way. I fell over laughing, and we vented about screwed up Iraqi and American commanders for the next thirty minutes.

    So, the question is,

    Is this two warriors letting off steam?


    Did I act unprofessionally and sell out my "real" team?

  17. Lil, I'm on my way to COP Michigan, the one remaining outpost at the mouth of the Korengal, and am trying desperately to get my hands on a bootleg DVD so I can ask soldiers there what they think of it. If I succeed I will let you guys know.

    Boondoggle, last month I was at a little PB in Sangin with some Royal Marines and they were watching "The Marines of Lima Company"...they didn't finish the movie, as someone chucked some grenades onto the PB, causing casualties, but it was fascinating to hear the platoon's commentary on the movie. They were stunned by a lot of the very routine-at-the-time tactics that Lima 3/25 used.

    On selling out your predecessors...I'm curious what 1-32 actually was doing wrong. If I'm not mistaken the unit had a very highly regarded commander, but had a far larger AO than the unit that followed it, and at least for the first year or so of the deployment had a lot of responsibilities that would later wind up at the brigade level when a BCT headquarters was deployed to N2KL.

    MikeF, the brigade commander here was your squadron commander in OIF, I believe...anything particular I should ask him about? If so, could you pass it along to me via Gulliver?

  18. Safe travels Tintin. Tell the boss that I said hello, and I'll pass one thing along to Gulliver for you to provide.

  19. Ditto MikeF. Safe travels Tintin, good to hear from you around here!

  20. Copyright laws get no respect.

  21. Tintin--safe travels, it's nice to hear from you! It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about the film.

    Mike--sounds to me like you were shooting shit with a colleague.

  22. Tintin,

    Would be interesting to hear their abbreviated perspective. One thing that was interesting in Lima is that Marines explained later their tactical decisions, including the platoon (think it was him) leader who made the call to rush through on the hardball in AAV's. It was that perspective that made it different than Restrepo. It would be quite interesting if Junger went back and had Kearney and others review footage and ask why they did x,y and z.

    As to the "under the bus", if its for calculated measures, go for it.... but we're all on the same team, and JMO, if you or your contemporaries go to that well too often good luck getting them to respect any of us. But that's a tough call, plus if they really were mucking it up, you'll lose points if you don't bring it up.

  23. I've been wondering about that Boondoggle (the if you do it too much, they don't respect anyone part)--thanks for mentioning it.

  24. DCU-clad, not ACU-clad...tsk tsk...

  25. DCU-clad, not ACU-clad...tsk tsk...

    Duh. Fixed.