Willfully Blind to the Big Picture

Restrepo is a new movie that documents the lives of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan. According to David Carr of the New York Times:

“Restrepo” avoids the conventions of documentary film: there is no back story, no drive-bys with experts for context, no underlying ideology or obvious message. The viewer is dropped into war, with a hard jolt, and resides, along with 15 soldiers from Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in a remote and raw outpost called Restrepo, so named after one member of the platoon who is killed early in their rotation….

Actress Anne Hathaway & Daniel Battsek

Daniel Battsek, the former president of Miramax who now runs National Geographic Films, saw “Restrepo” in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for best documentary. Now National Geographic Entertainment is releasing the film….

“Restrepo” … never delves into the geopolitics that put those soldiers in that deadly valley in the first place.

“We weren’t burdened by the baggage of classic documentary filmmaking,” [Battsek] said. “And that included letting people draw their own conclusions. There is no room to be apathetic. These are your tax dollars at work, but the soldiers we filmed didn’t spend much time talking about the war and neither did we.”

Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger, the film’s co-director, used a similar context-free approach in War, the book he wrote about this same platoon in Afghanistan. Junger’s decision not to explore “the geopolitics that put those soldiers in that deadly valley in the first place” annoys Lewis Manalo, who served combat tours in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. Manalo writes:

“Junger’s portrayal of soldiers is superficial and unsophisticated…. Junger’s attitude towards soldiers is that of a condescending fan. An attitude shared by most civilians who don’t have a soldier in their lives, the mindset allows a person to voice support for his or her country’s troops and simultaneously sound their lack of support for America’s recent wars. Early in the book Junger asserts that the “moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers” and that they really don’t care about “its long-term success or failure.” He likens a soldier’s concern with who wins the war to a farmhand’s concern with the global economy, in that “they generally leave the big picture to others,” an assumption of willful ignorance that’s patronizing to both professions.

Pat Tillman

It’s easier for a person who does not support the war to support an ignorant soldier. But it’s a volunteer Army, and a twenty-year-old in the Army is just as politically conscious as any other twenty-year-old. Junger goes to great lengths to point out that these men signed up knowing that they would fight either in Iraq or in Afghanistan, yet he fails to see enlistment as a political act that conceivably has more of an impact than voting. He doesn’t seem to have read anything about Pat Tillman’s political views or read anything by Pat’s brother Kevin. And the very first chapter of Lone Survivor dedicates pages to outlining how politics affects a combat soldier’s day to day survival. The big picture doesn’t leave these men alone. Junger also ignores the existence of those very vocal groups of veterans who now protest the wars they once fought in. These men and women don’t leave the big picture to others.”

But National Geographic does. Restrepo is a film that casts a blind eye on context, and on why U.S. troops were dispatched to Afghanistan in the first place.

It’s worth noting that 9/11 is not forbidden editorial territory for National Geographic. The NG Channel analyzed many of the details of that infamous day in a full-length documentary. But that TV show was a crime scene investigation, not a rendering of an attack by radical Islamists who had — and who still have — an ambitious global agenda.

Our Society embraces a film like Restrepo, partly because it refuses to depict the war in Afghanistan with a wide-angle lens. But as history shows us, National Geographic wasn’t always willfully blind to the big picture:

≡  Daniel Battsek & Anne Hathaway via zimbio.com
≡  Sebastian Junger via The Philly Post
≡  Pat Tillman via progressohio.org

  • Calico Jack

    Just being objective.

  • But of course. 🙂

  • bob

    I found it refreshing that it was an experience, that it put me in the moment, gave me a sense of place without the usual, excruciating predictable “he said, she said” of so many boring talking heads of TV docs and magazine stories. I applaud that they skipped getting some guy from the defense department to say “what a noble exercise this is…let's bring freedom for the oppressed, blahblahblah…”

    For me, a story or film should give you an experience, something emotional, not the total be all and end all of every part of the Afghanistan puzzle.

    BTW, is it ironic that Manalo quotes Tillman? What's is the stronger story there: about Pat Tillman's political views for joining the military or his tragic death via friendly fire and the massive and embarrassing campaign of cover up and lies about how he was killed…

  • Hi Bob,

    It's better that a movie do one thing well, than do three things in mediocre fashion. Based on your reactions, Junger & Hetherington did that one thing very well: Restrepo clearly gives viewers a visceral sense of what soldiers in Afghanistan are facing, day in & day out….

    That said, these sorts of movies are stand-alone affairs. For many folks, it's our only long-form look at the war. Also: Since the spark for this conflagration was set ten years ago, it gets tougher to remember why U.S. soldiers are there in the first place.

    Which is to say: I don't need some guy from DoD to extol the virtues of this conflict. But I do think it's incumbent upon the filmmakers to give some historic referent, just the briefest of glances back to 9/11 to say: “This is why we're here.”

    As for irony re: Tillman — nah, not really. The friendly fire story is a critical one, and I'm glad it was told. But I'd say the two stories complement each other: While DoD was inept in coming clean about Tillman's death, Tillman's life was all about standing up for a cause he believed in. One story is about organizational ineptitude; the other is about personal heroism.

    Put another way: Tillman's saw the big picture, and it changed him forever. Which is what great pictures are supposed to do, right?

    Thanks for stopping by….

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