'Korengal': Film Review

KORENGAL Poster - H 2014

KORENGAL Poster - H 2014

Another compelling doc about the Afghanistan war focuses more on interviews than on you-are-there combat footage.

Sebastian Junger finishes the project he and the late Tim Hetherington started in "Restrepo."

In 2011's Oscar-nominated doc Restrepo, journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington took us to the Army's most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan and, for the most part, left us there with the men who defended it. Having paused to eulogize his partner after Hetherington was killed covering civil war in Libya (with last year's Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?), Junger returns to their subjects with Korengal -- a doc relying less on in-the-field material than on interviews with the men who fought there. Though more engaging in some ways, the new film adds slices to our understanding of life in this war but not so much so that it feels essential. Theatrical self-distribution should prove modestly fruitful for the producers, though the film will likely perform better on small screens.

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As the first film showed us, it wasn't uncommon for these men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to have multiple shootouts with insurgents in a single day. But war isn't all gunfights, and Korengal (named for the valley where the soldiers were stationed) goes through a checklist of those other realities. By the midpoint, the itemization of topics starts to feel routine: We talk about maintaining morale, then about the sheer fatigue of lugging gear on long hikes, then about the kinds of weapon each man favors, then about boredom.

Talking is much of the point, as we sit down with each man in an Italian base far from war zones; having digested the time he spent in a fort built from rocks and dirt and plywood, each relaxes into self-analysis. Though we do get some of the you-are-there footage that was Restrepo's selling point, it is mostly used to illustrate comments made in the interviews.

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Only occasionally does a single soldier's personality really emerge here -- as when California-raised Specialist Tad Donoho Jr., caught in a quiet moment on guard duty, jokes about his friendly rivalry with a comrade raised in neighboring Oregon. (He goes on to imagine his future grandchildren recognizing the name Korengal from their history lessons -- an optimistic thought, considering how few Americans know the place even while we have soldiers there.)

Instead, the film focuses on concerns that are universal to a group of men who have formed bonds they can't envision replicating with parents or wives back home. "I'd rather be there than here," Misha Pemble-Belkin says after he has left Korengal -- and while civilian viewers might think that's an insane thing to say, these two films do help us see where he's coming from.

Production company: Battle Films, LLC

Director: Sebastian Junger

Producers: Nick Quested, Sebastian Junger

Directors of photography: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

Editor: Michael Levine

Music: Marty Beller

No rating, 84 minutes