Monday, May 23, 2011

Restrepo, Memorial Day, and the Meaning of Service

Thank You Veterans (Part 2)

I have two grown children who no longer live in the Antelope Valley so I usually only see them at holidays and graduations. My youngest, 21, still lives near me though, and we try to coordinate a “family night” once a week or so. We make a good meal and watch a video and just get caught up.

These often happen on Mondays or Tuesdays, and in the case of the upcoming Memorial Day Monday, I was thinking ahead about what would be an appropriate film to watch. Memorial Day is a good time to think about service and sacrifice, about the military and about what makes America what it is. One recent war movie that received high critical praise but still is little known is Restrepo. Maybe that should be the focus of my next family night...and yours.

A documentary by the man who wrote A Perfect Storm, this gripping film tells the story of a platoon of soldiers at a small outpost in Afghanistan, an outpost that is under daily fire. The base is named “Restrepo” after a member of the unit killed early in their deployment. There is nothing fake about this film: it is grim and unrelenting and vividly shows the stresses our troops endure.

Critics gave the movie an astounding 96% approval rating (104 positive reviews out of 108, as tallied by the website “Rotten Tomatoes”). Here is a typical response: “Restrepo succeeds as both a remarkable piece of cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking and a tribute to the soldiers who are put through hell.” (Thomas Caldwell, as quoted on the Rotten Tomatoes website.)

The filmmakers were in the thick of it themselves, and an opening shot where we are inside a humvee when it is hit by an IED is jarring in every sense of the word. This is high definition footage, and if watched on a high-resolution screen, has an indelible presence. A warning to parents, though, with children at home: there are no actors here, just soldiers being soldiers in the middle of a combat zone, so the language is authentic but coarse. You can’t bleep it out or it will ruin the flow, so I must caution that the dialogue is beyond salty.

The terrain looks like the steepest, scabbiest parts of the drive between Palmdale and La Cañada over Angeles Forest Highway—rocks and stunted trees and impossibly steep, scrubby slopes. It seems like a terrible place to try and make a living, and a worse place to fight a war.

Another artist who has made important work about the current Afghan war is a British soldier and artist, Mark Cook. I saw an exhibit of his work at the National Army Museum in London, and bought a signed copy of the catalogue (with a forward by a generously praising Prince Charles). Cook paints in the field, sometimes even while under fire. These plates are from his amazing collection of art, Sketches from Afghanistan. Profits from this 2009 publication will go to charities assisting returning soldiers.

The documentary Restrepo is in some ways just one voice in a three-media project. There are these water colors (above), there is the movie itself, but then there is a nonfiction book that parallels the movie, looking in depth at fear and brotherhood and even the odd sexuality of men deprived of dates. It is called simply War and also is by the movie’s director Sebastian Junger; it goes into more background with the men and expands on incidents covered in the movie.

In the prose style and insights it recalls Hemingway’s World War I novel, Farewell to Arms. Here is a sample from page 157.

"We walk into Restrepo and drop our packs in a pile. The sun has fired the Abas Ghar with a red glow and a few of the brighter planets are already infiltrating the afternoon sky. The men are standing around in dirty fleeces and their pants unbelted smoking cigarettes and watching another day come to an end. They’re dirty in their pores and under their nails and their skin has burnished to a kind of a sheen at their wrists and neck where the uniforms rub. Dirt collects in the creases of the skin and shows up as strange webs at the corners of the eyes and their lifelines run black and unmistakable across the palms of their hands. It’s a camp of homeless men or hunters who have not reckoned with a woman in months and so have long since abandoned the niceties. They belch and fart and blow their noses on their sleeves and wipe their mouths on their shirtfronts and pack every sentence with enough profanity to last most civilians a week. After the fighting ended last fall they got so bored that they starting prying boulders out of the hillside and rolling them into the valley. They were trying to get one inside the wire at Firebase Phoenix just to keep Third Platoon on their toes. Caldwell finally told them to knock it off."

From our current generation of service, the other war movie to watch this Memorial Day would be the feature film Hurt Locker, about a bomb squad in Iraq. The first Gulf War has a movie too, odd and little-known, by the rogue German director, Werner Herzog. It is a sort of science-fiction allegory and/or Cubist collage film, using post-war footage from Kuwait combined with voice-overs, inter-titled sub-chapters, and an operatic soundtrack. Called Lessons of Darkness, it is haunting but hard to find.

Heartbreak Ridge was a less-than-great Clint Eastwood movie, but it does reference the invasion of Grenada. It is the Vietnam War that gives us our shelf of great American war movies: Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. Next academic year there will be a professional development program (formerly called “Flex”) that will look at these films, and will consider the novel Heart of Darkness that Apocalypse Now was based on. It will be open to the public and the date will be announced on this blog.

An excellent documentary about this period that is worth remembering (and that is in AVC’s Instructional Media Center collection) is Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Indeed, this was the movie I was going to use in class on the Tuesday that became known as “9/11.” It is made up entirely of archival footage with the narration provided by news broadcasts and letters home from the men and women serving overseas, and all of that combined with period rock and roll. The movie concludes with a deeply moving letter written by a mother for her dead son that was left at the Vietnam Memorial.

(Similarly, the book War in its most recent printing ends with President Obama hugging a sobbing mother during a Medal of Honor ceremony. That too is a very moving moment.)

Korea has often been called the Forgotten War, though it makes an appearance in the book War and even in Heartbreak Ridge (Eastwood’s character is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran). While the television series M*A*S*H was one long liberal, monotone satiric comment on the Vietnam War, parts of it illuminate the real Korean War, such as the episodes shot in black and white whose frame tales replicate the interviews of actual, authentic period war reporting.

A World War II movie to think about this Memorial Day is the ‘90s remake of a 1940s documentary called (in both cases) Memphis Belle. It tells the story of a B-17 crew who will be the first in their unit to finish their required combat missions and rotate State-side. Shot in England using actual vintage planes, it recreates the terror and confusion of aerial combat in the Second World War. It has vivid characters and a compelling plot. A movie like that is far, far beyond the sit-com triviality of Hogan’s Heroes, the POW series filmed on a Culver City back lot and seemingly determined to turn a conflict that claimed 60 to 70 million human lives world-wide into something so silly and shallow that the average kindergarten class has more substance.

Whether you attend a parade this Memorial Day or plant flags at a cemetery or simply observe a moment of silent prayer, let us all honor our American servicemen and women, and thank them for helping to keep us safe and free, and for helping us to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

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