From mid-May 2007 through the summer of the following year, Sebastian Junger and his colleague Tim Hetherington chronicled the deployment of a platoon of American troops in a remote and notoriously deadly Afghanistan valley. The resulting experiential travelogue of war reportage, 2010’s Restrepo, picked up a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The follow-up, Korengal, comes three years after Hetherington was tragically killed covering the civil war in Libya, and builds on the psychological perspicacity of its predecessor, delving in a very simple and direct way into what war and its aftereffects feel like.
Korengal takes its title from the aforementioned rugged, six-mile-long valley, a key Taliban supply route in the northeastern portion of Kunar Province, near the border with Pakistan. Following the same soldiers from Restrepo, from the Second Platoon of the 503rd Infantry Regiment and the Combat Team of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the movie intercuts formal interviews after the men have cycled out of their year-long tour with more conversational material and other footage from the ground. In doing so, Korengal provides a view of the edginess the soldiers’ environment engenders—in many ways human bait for Taliban insurgents, they would be “contacted,” or fired upon, more than 270 times in a year—shot through with suspicion about even the placement of every rock (is that natural erosion, an IED or a new, slightly tread path?) on their frequent foot patrols down into neighboring villages.
Though it does include some combat footage, Korengal is for the most part a more removed and reflective work than its predecessor. “Life is weird up here,” says one soldier, recalling a five-to six-hour conversation about who would win in a fight between George Clooney and Fabio. If a large part of Restrepo was about capturing the low-level dread and anxiety that swirls around soldiers in war, Korengal revisits that feeling but connects it in ethereal yet tangible fashion to an explanation of why soldiers not only have difficulty reintegrating into civilian life, but also actually miss combat, and pine for a return to this stressed-out environment. The intensity of feeling and the depths of reservoirs of trust required to sustain basic safety is so psychologically consuming that it overwhelms the circuits of normal, humdrum human interaction. In this context, it’s understandable how soldiers can be afraid for their lives but at the same time wish for firefights to break up the monotony of their extreme isolation.
Junger and editor Michael Levine show an intuitive grasp of interior pivot points, knowing when to intercut interview footage with extant material and when to hold on a single shot for maximum effect, as when Sgt. Brendan O’Byrne expounds upon how much he detests the oft-offered phrase of comfort, “You did what you had to do.” Describing the psychological impact of war as “an evil thing inside your body,” he says, “You do terrible things, and then you think if you had a chance to go back, you’d do things exactly the same.” It’s the presentation of this knotty, roiling, heartrending inner conflict that gives Korengal its considerable emotional punch, and marks it as a fittingly complex, multidimensional look at the dilemma of yet another new generation of American veterans.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Magill’s Cinema Annual and Playboy, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Sebastian Junger
Featuring: Misha Pemble-Belkin, Dan Kearney, LaMonta Caldwell, Mark Patterson, Kyle Steiner, Sterling Jones, Joshua McDonough, Kevin Rice, Brendan O’Byrne, Miguel Cortez, Aron Hijar
Release Date: June 6 (New York); June 13 (Los Angeles)