RESTREPO, how’s this for an opening salvo?

Still from RESTREPO.

How’s this for an opening salvo? RESTREPO, the first documentary to screen at Sundance 2010, kicks off with a grunt’s-eye view of being caught in a roadside-bomb explosion, and only gets more intense from there. In 2007 and 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington made 10 trips to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a six-mile corridor near the Pakistan border, at the time the focal point of the fighting between U.S. forces and the Taliban. A raw, often harrowing piece of frontline reportage, the film uses post-facto interviews with the soldiers to orient the viewers, but mostly, it opts for disorientation — for the surreal ground-level experience of combat, alternating between restless downtime and confusing firefights.

A more action-packed version of Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ OCCUPATION DREAMLAND (2005), one of the first and still the best of the embedded Iraq-war docs, RESTREPO shadows the men as they press on into this valley of death, fired on by unseen enemies, eventually establishing an outpost that they name in honor of their fallen medic, Juan Restrepo. What we see throughout are the emotions — and the coping mechanisms — of men at war: adrenalized excitement, gallows humor, and in the most unforgettable scene (in the aftermath of a deadly ambush), sheer terror and panic.

At last night’s Q&A, Junger pointed out that the soldiers’ political beliefs are all over the map; the filmmakers’ stated intention is to put a human face on a politicized war and an abstract conflict (certainly one that has received much less media coverage than Iraq). But is it really possible to avoid politics in a film about this subject? (Think of this perhaps as a continuation of the HURT LOCKER debate.) Without necessarily trying to, RESTREPO brings up questions of why these men are there, and whether this particular war is winnable. It may be more comforting to think of it simply as a film that supports the troops (which it does, unequivocally), but the larger picture is one of futility and frustration: dead-end meetings with local village elders, pointless deaths that stoke vicious-cycle retaliations. RESTREPO, in other words, is hardly apolitical. Whether or not Hetherington and Junger intended to, their film makes a stark, powerful anti-war statement.