POV’s Doc Soup Man, Tom Roston, revisits three recent documentaries about war.


War is hell.

That’s one of the many truisms that have floated around about war. But, when it comes to our current engagement in Afghanistan, it seems the more relevant slogan is, War is boring and pointless. At least, that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve gleaned from three recent documentaries on the subject: Restrepo, The Tillman Story and Armadillo, the last of which is airing this week on POV.

In each of these documentaries, we see soldiers spoiling for a fight, with nothing to do all day except get pumped up in the hopes they can get some action. Attempts to connect to the locals are repeatedly refuted by Afghanis who throw up their hands — if they are to collaborate with Western forces, the Taliban would have them killed.

In Restrepo, directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (the latter of whom died recently in Libya), we follow a platoon of American soldiers as they defend an observation post in the dangerous Korengal Valley. The horror of war is recorded in a vicious firefight, but most of the time the guys loll around. Eventually, the fruitlessness of their presence is signified by the abandonment of the post.

The Tillman Story is focused on the tragic friendly-fire killing of former football player-turned-U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman. As much as the film is about the Tillman family dealing with the government’s cover-up of the killing, the centerpiece of director Amir Bar-Lev’s film is the moment when Tillman is killed — how it happened and why. Where the documentary fails is that, despite its parsing of every detail about the incident, we are never asked to look one fact straight in the face: Tillman was racing toward a fight, perhaps carelessly, and that got him killed. Was he being brave and selfless? Or was he looking to kick ass? Of course, when you’re at war, these questions might be moot, and it’s pretty lame to analyze the wartime actions from one’s armchair vantage point. Really, what do I know about being in a war zone?

And yet, it’s exactly because this is such a difficult subject that it becomes taboo to discuss. And that’s what makes me want to raise the issue more. It’s an unpleasant notion, especially in the face of Bar-Lev trying to paint Tillman as a hero of a different stripe (a progressive, Noam Chomsky-reading soldier-hero) than how Bush painted him (in more jingoistic colors). I think it’s worth considering.

Armadillo, about a group of Danish ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan, actually helps shed more light on the subject. “Going commando” is how one of the soldiers proudly describes his actions when he and a squad of dozens of Danes wipe out five Taliban. It’s an unsettling scene, one that is impossible to judge fairly from afar, but it’s clear that the soldiers are chomping at the bit to get some action, and when they do, they obliterate the enemy. “That was awesome,” crows a soldier, after the fight.

This all comes after the boredom of war is established with long shots of soldiers sitting around with nothing to do. They play violent video games that director Janus Metz slyly segues to real night-vision battle scenes of actual soldiers. Metz intentionally reveals that this is a game of war for these guys. And this notion is made more vivid with the soldiers’ freedom to grow long hair and beards and brandish tattoos, making them appear as if they just walked off the set of a Michael Bay movie. I was half expecting an alien to attack them.

Metz has a slick style, and cinematographer Lars Skree shot on Red, Canon HDSLR and Panasonic DVCPRO HD cameras, giving the images a heightened, deeply saturated look that reminded me of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days. Does that make him complicit in the aestheticization of war? I don’t think so, partly because he gets so close to the soldiers, and as Metz has said, “The mission was to bring the war on Afghanistan back into people’s living rooms and make them engaged.”

I came away from these three docs thinking about another slogan about war:

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen