'Korengal' is highly relevant leftovers

Matt Pais movie review: 'Korengal'

'Korengal'

'Korengal' (June 23, 2014)

*** (out of four)

A movie can never make you fully understand a first-person experience, whether you’re watching war footage or a graphic sex scene. Note: These rarely occur in the same film.

However, the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary “Restrepo” did an awfully good job of giving viewers rare, intimate access to real-life conflict. Embedded with American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan’s ultra-dangerous Korengal Valley in 2007, directors and veteran journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger depicted the men both in battle and in rare moments of blowing off steam. In-studio interviews added perspective, but the emphasis largely was on location footage.

“Korengal” comes from unused content gathered while reporting “Restrepo,” and the new documentary hardly feels like scraps. Looking a bit closer at the people (as opposed to the as-it-happens experience of a war zone), “Korengal” still doesn’t contain extensive background on the soldiers’ families. It’s not a political statement. But it does access the mental states of its subjects and contains many resonant anecdotes, whether it’s a story being reflected or as the guys spend time at operating base Restrepo, named for a medic killed in action.

Specialist Kyle Steiner notes, “Fighting a human being isn’t as hard as you think when they’re trying to kill you.” When he asserts that he’d walk cross-country to help one of his comrades change a tire, you believe him. Specialist Sterling Jones discusses a gun whose rounds can sear flesh from 18 inches away. The soldiers play “Rock Band” (Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”) and talk about the adrenaline of a firefight without glorifying it. The scenery is both beautiful and terrifying; the downtime is anything but an escape. As strategies unfold and bullets fly, you almost have to remind yourself that this isn’t a re-enactment. “Korengal,” like its predecessor, shows you fear and selflnessness with remarkable authenticity.

“Restrepo” felt more urgent and better organized, while the 81-minute “Korengal” is more of a scattered assemblance of interactions and memories. But this unexpected sequel is powerful nonetheless, and not just because Junger, who financed the documentary himself, put together the film after Hetherington was killed in Libya in 2011. As with the service and obeyed rules of the men in combat, there’s honor in the filmmaking—which reminds me of Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne saying he can’t stand when someone tells him he did what he had to do, because he didn’t have to do anything. All you have is what you choose to do, and why.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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