By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Want to talk war? Forget U.S. Generals Stanley McChrystal and even David Petraeus, and consider not what they faced, or face, in Afghanistan. Think, for a moment, about ground troops and what they encounter.
Better yet, see them in a new film documentary, "Restrepo," which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday and was made by famed author Sebastian Junger and war reporter Tim Hetherington.
"Restrepo," the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, covers the one-year deployment during 2007 and 2008 of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in the deadly Korengal Valley, and instead of telling audiences about the war, Junger and Hetherington simply turn on their cameras and let audiences watch the bullets fly.
More accurately, audiences see the soldiers facing cultural differences, boredom and fatigue until Taliban guns pop, bombs explode and men are plunged -- sometimes crying -- into chaos.
"We wanted people to see (the war), so we thought we would make a movie that was real, but didn't feel weighed down or stiff, the way many documentaries do," Junger said. "We wanted viewers to have the feeling that they were in a...deployment."
As Americans ponder President Obama's decision this week to fire the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, and replace him with General Petraeus, and what that means for big picture war policy, "Restrepo" makes people think about the little guys encamped in a faraway land.
The film begins innocently with the men of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade laughing and joking as they head from training in the United States to war in Afghanistan.
Audiences meet several of them, but most importantly the medic, Specialist Restrepo, who early on is memorialized after his sudden death when the men name an outpost on the edge of the war zone, Camp Restrepo.
BLOOD AND MONEY
Over the year, the soldiers guard camp, go out on routine patrols, and their leader Captain Dan Kearney tries to befriend local leaders -- often by offering money.
In one bloody engagement with Taliban troops, audiences see the soldiers fight bravely while also trying to protect one another. They watch their friends die, and break down in tears as the Taliban surround them. All the while, the cameras of Junger and Hetherington are right there with them.
The war reporters also train their cameras on the men after they have left the war zone, asking for their perspective looking back on the year. The hindsight provides context to the feelings and emotions the men were experiencing at the time.
"When you get to know the soldiers as people, I think it brings the war closer to home," Hetherington told Reuters. "We are trying to build a bridge to the audience by showing them that these men could be their sons, their lovers."
Junger, well-known for his best-selling novel "The Perfect Storm," and Hetherington, an acclaimed photographer and cameraman, both contribute to Vanity Fair magazine and both have chronicled civil wars in Africa.
But neither had spent a great deal of time with U.S. military troops until they ate, drank, slept and camped with them in the Korengal Valley.
The "Restrepo" makers told Reuters they wanted to stay away from the politics of the war, away from Presidents Obama and Bush and the right or wrong of the war. They wanted to take viewers beyond daily news reports of armed conflict to show the men relating to one another and to Afghan civilians.
"We're training these young men to defend each other and kill, and then we're asking them to maneuver these very complex (cultural) issues in faraway lands," Hetherington said, "and we have to see them in very human terms to understand them."
(Editing by Christine Kearney)