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Review: Korengal (2014)

Korengal (2014)

Directed by: Sebastian Junger

Premise: A follow up to the 2010 documentary Restrepo. Like that film, Korengal documents the lives of American soldiers at Outpost Restrepo in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

What Works: Most mainstream television news sources have given up reporting on America’s military exploits in Afghanistan. That has left documentary filmmakers as one of the few groups of people telling the stories of our soldiers and their mission. Between 2007 and 2008, photojournalist Tim Heatherington documented the lives of the soldiers at an isolated military outpost and in collaboration with filmmaker Sebastian Junger that footage was crafted into the 2010 documentary Restrepo. Drawing on the same body of footage, Junger has created Korengal, a follow up that continues to examine the experiences of these soldiers while deployed in a very dangerous place. Like Restrepo, Korengal is comprised of footage shot at the outpost and in the local environs intercut with post-deployment interviews of the surviving soldiers. The first film was very much about the experience of combat and a look at the United States’ mission in Afghanistan. Korengal offers a more intimate look at the lives of the soldiers and we come to know them better in this installment. While there isn’t a lot of actual fighting in this film, the documentarians have managed to capture the fear and excitement of being on the front lines and provided some insight into warfare from the point of view of the soldiers who directly lived it. It is a cliché to describe the mentality of soldiers as focused on “protecting the guy next to you,” but the filmmakers validate the truthfulness of that sentiment and the soldiers’ testimonies give that conventional wisdom a shot of reality. The movie has some extraordinary footage. Some of its extraordinariness is due to the fact that this conflict has raged for thirteen years but has all but disappeared from the nation’s airwaves. But setting that absence aside, the footage of Korengal is extraordinary in its own terms because of its honesty. The filmmakers do not coopt the Afghanistan mission for cheap political points nor do they condescend to the troops or to the audience with sentimentality.

What Doesn’t: Korengal isn’t so much a sequel to Restrepo as it is a companion piece. Restrepo was a portrait of modern warfare; it didn’t have a strongly enunciated narrative but it did offer a slice of life, documenting the experiences of the soldiers during the war in Afghanistan. There is a lot in Korengal that comes across redundant with Restrepo. This is partly due to the fact that Korengal has the same subject; it’s the same soldiers at the same outpost. As a result, Korengal rehashes many of the elements of its predecessor and in some cases it does them better but others it does less well. Korengal is distinguished from its predecessor in that it is slightly more intimate. We get a better feel for the personalities of the individual soldiers in Korengal than in Restrepo. However, Korengal’s portrayal of the relationship between the soldiers and the local Afghani population is not as interesting. Restrepo had some incisive footage of the soldiers attempting to win over the locals. Without overtly stating it, these scenes in Restrepo captured the failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan. The sequel does not have a comparable moment. The film also lacks much of a conclusion. It begins with the destruction of Outpost Restrepo, which US forces carried out in 2010 when the base was abandoned. The film does not comment further on this or what it means to the men who served there, although that might be addressed in Sebastian Junger’s follow up, The Last Patrol, which is anticipated for release in 2015.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Despite some redundancies, Korengal is a well-made, engaging, and thoughtful piece on America’s military exploits in Afghanistan. Together with Restrepo, the two films constitute among the most important documents to be made about the war.

Episode: #527 (February 1, 2014)