There is something serendipitous about my relationship with Restrepo. It’s as if this film and my destiny are intertwined. I first learnt of Sebastian Junger’s embed in the Korengal Valley in 2007, when BBC2’s The Culture Show invited me to review his latest tome, ‘War’, for a programme they were creating on modern war writing.
They sent me a copy in the post, and I duly began reading it. I wrote this review of it for the Army Rumour Service Book Club. Just as I had finished it, The Culture Show decided they did not need my review after all and there was “no need Gromit” for me to have bothered. Despite having co-(entirely)written a battlefield memoir, it’s a not a genre I would EVER read unless asked to by a high-brow, publicly funded, arts programme.
I was then approached by Dogwoof to attend a preview of it, and London City Mum and I embarked on our first ever date, sans Popcorn. I thought, at the time, it was an incredible film, but I have to confess that I was very nervous about seeing it. Not for the obvious reasons; live gunfights and soldiers getting killed, but because in the book the soldiers w*nk all the time. To the extent where they think it would be cool if they could bash one out while engaged in contact. As the film was billed as one of honesty, I was convinced that I would have to sit through footage of the soldiers constantly slapping the salami. I was, therefore, deeply relieved that this hadn’t made the final cut of the documentary, to such an extent that I wasn’t like the other forlorn shell-shocked figures that departed the cinema that day. In the end, I wrote this review – Men and War
Time passed, and I spoke with Anna, Dogwoof’s (the UK distribution company for the film) incredible leader and somehow, I ended up working on bigging up a documentary that I am absolutely convinced is going to win an Oscar. It was due to this monumental bigging up of an incredible film, (if you loved Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, or The Pacific, then you will definitely want to see) that I ended up in a Video Skype interview with Major Dan Kearney, the US Platoon Commander, featured in the film, at 2am, in the earliest hours of the morning last week.
In 2007, the then 27 year old, then Captain, was responsible for over 300 soldiers in the Korengal Valley, the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
He’d tried to re-arrange the interview at the 11th hour, partly because he was digging deep, and talking to some Limey Doris, after a ball breaking day at work, somewhere in the deep south of the good ole US of A was not high on his list of priorities. I promised by email that I would warm up him gently, and relax him into the interview. I said, that in porn, I believed it was called ‘the Fluffer’. He had laughed [ha, ha, ha] so I was quietly confident that it would be ok.
We chatted easily. He promised me that he was very blunt, and that what you see is what you get. I told him about my fear of on-film bashing of the bishop and the ice was officially broken. As we explored some of the deeper issues, Major Dan told me that he didn’t really feel anymore. After his initial tour of Iraq, he had buried his emotions as a means of coping and he didn’t like to think about how many lives he may have taken.
He explained that the Korengal Valley was a very complex place, and they soon realised that it was actually dominated by rich gangster families that were trafficking illegally between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They didn’t want to be rescued by Americans that were supported by a Government that had taken away their main source of income, the timber trade, and were messing in a place where they weren’t welcome. The insurgents weren’t strictly Taliban, but gangsters that were fighting on their home turf, and angry. Part of the challenge was working with interpreters with a limited grasp of American, other than cussing and what they had learnt on films, so when he was trying to discuss with elders in a shura (council) the intricacies of politcial negotiation he was supported by the interpreter equivalent of Bart Simpson (my metaphor not his).
It was a lonely place for Major Dan, in the solitude of command, in the outpost from hell, being pounded daily by vicious, unstoppable, unforgiving insurgents. From what I can see from watching the film, he was wholly ill-equipped to deliver the task, which is no fault of his own. Should a 27 year old Captain be expected to negotiate with tribal elders over issues which he cannot control? I think not. Fundamentally, (and very over-simplified) his job was to hold the ground, build the road and manage the troops. In my mind, they could have done with an intermediary, someone like Benedict Allen.
Isolated Major Dan could show no fear to his men; he couldn’t tell his family, and he had no peers nearby to share the burden. From what he said, Junger and Hetherington were his lifeline – whenever they came to the outpost he would download to them. Maybe their presence on the mountain enabled him to push beyond his peers, before, and after, him. The respect, the friendship, that he has for them is without question – I think, genuinely, neither party, would have expected to have finished their journeys together as brothers but it seems that is how it has ended.
To close I asked Major Dan, “who would play you in the Hollywood blockbuster?”. I suggested, Mark Wahrlberg, initally he said, Matt Damon. Then he changed his mind, and said, Daniel Craig, and then he said, Jason Statham, like he was in Crank; he could go in there and hose them down with impunity – sometimes that was his fantasy.
To hear my interview with Major Dan Kearney – please watch the videos Part 1 and Part 2.
Part 1 (5 mins)
Part 2 (10 mins)
Restrepo is an amazing film. Emotionally, it’s not an easy film to watch but it’s an honest film. It’s a very watchable film. It’s a significant film that will make it’s stamp on how documentaries will be made in the future.
It is released in the UK on October 8th – you can see it here
On Tuesday, I am interviewing Tim Hetherington, the director, and Major Dan has given me a special insider question to ask him so stay tuned folks. 🙂
I am not the only one talking about Restrepo. Linked below are what some mightier swords than I think: