Korengal doesn’t exactly pick up where the 2010 documentary Restrepo ended. Nominated for Best Documentary and co-directed by Sebastian Junger alongside Tim Hetherington, Restrepo was an attempt to show the apolitical realities of the modern soldier in Afghanistan. Since its release and success, Hetherington died while covering the Libyan civil war. Junger honors Hetherington by doggedly avoiding any attempt at narrative or action. He has deep sympathy for the soldiers where he’s embedded, and while Korengal doesn’t offer fresh insight, it’s an intermittently worthwhile reminder of why soldiers fight.
The Korengal valley is one of the deadliest areas in Afghanistan, and the outpost “Restrepo” (named after a fallen soldier) is in the middle of nowhere. The outpost has huts made from sandbags and plywood, and supplies must be flown in via helicopter. Still, the most important thing about the valley is how it serves as two major supply routes for Taliban fighters. This means that the fight often comes to the outpost, instead of the other way around. With a mix of combat footage and interviews, all of which are filmed in close-up, we get the sense of how firefights and extreme boredom define the lives of these men. They don’t speak in clichés, and they’re wary of words like “brave.” Junger uses his rapport with these young men to strip away platitudes like “support the troops” in order to get at what they think and how they feel.
This documentary has no pace in the traditional sense. That would make the footage too inaccurate, too exciting. There are flashes of activity instead, which are then met with long sections of frustration, fatigue, and boredom. Junger uses his skill as an editor and combat photographer to replicate the soldier’s dizzying array of feelings as best he can. By design (more or less), his apolitical, cinéma vérité approach veers between insight and tedium.
The stronger sections are when Junger provokes the soldiers to the point where they get angry, speak off the cuff, or offer a funny aside. There’s a moment where one guy says that, in order to pass the time, they discuss every conceivable topic, including a five-hour debate over whether George Clooney or Fabio would win in a fight (Clooney, obviously). But for every compelling interview or shot of gunfire, there are languid periods that meander and test the patience of the audience. These sections have their purpose, but Junger’s goals are dubious, since Restrepo covers virtually the exact same territory, except with a greater focus on diplomatic efforts (Korengal is more like a psychological portrait). Many recent war films, both narrative and nonfiction, already highlight how comrades in arms are more important to the average grunt than any strategic victory. Junger treats that insight and many others as if canny viewers never heard them before.
The most interesting thing about Korengal is how the soldiers walk the line between love and hate of their work. Some have more regrets than others, and on more than one occasion, they question why they joined up in the first place. Junger has the reserve and patience not to make an anti-soldier documentary, even though part of it practically serve as an anti-recruitment film. Then again, there are also sections of Korengal that are as red-blooded and trigger-happy as anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. That uneasy juxtaposition is Junger’s major achievement. War is hell, fun, boring, exciting, dangerous, stupid, pointless, and character-defining. Junger has the respect of these men in a way that few filmmakers could ever hope to achieve, but all this extra footage doesn’t necessarily mean we need another film about this brutal, perplexing valley.