Unless played for laughs or with twisted facts, documentaries struggle to grab our attention. For good or ill, real life tends to play out in muted tones, without convenient dramatic turns to carry us between scenes.
"Restrepo" is an exception. This look at the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan was directed by Sebastian Junger (writer of "The Perfect Storm") and photographer Tim Hetherington, who were embedded in 2007 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
The young men of the unit were charged with holding an outpost in the dangerous Korangal Valley. The outpost was named for medic Juan "Doc" Restrepo, who died soon after the unit arrived. The location was a Taliban hotspot, and the soldiers faced about 500 firefights in a year.
The filmmakers walked patrol with the soldiers and were at their sides during battles. Knowing the bullets whizzing by are real bullets makes the dramatic level of this film far greater than any fictional tale.
The makers also filmed the soldiers' meetings with Afghan villagers, meetings that grew more contentious as the deployment continued. And they captured lighthearted moments, such as a group dance during some down time. Studio interviews feature soldiers who explain their attempts to process the experience.
If you're looking for a political message, either for or against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, this is not your movie. The directors were satisfied with telling us about a group of courageous, honorable young soldiers — a salute these men richly deserve.