It’s just a coincidence that Amir Bar-Lev, whose Afghanistan documentary “The Tillman Story” plays the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend, once lived in the New York apartment of Sebastian Junger, the co-director of the Afghanistan documentary “Restrepo,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
But one can’t help feeling that there was a little bit of cinematic karma at work in the fact that, as a struggling filmmaker, Bar-Lev happened to move into the 350-square-foot studio previously occupied by Junger. Both Bar-Lev and Junger have just completed powerful and chillingly realistic portrayals of the complexities of combat in Afghanistan that -- while cultivated separately -- come from the same clearheaded place.
“Most of documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan so far have been political polemics, and I think the public is exhausted by them,” says Junger. “What our films are trying to do is to make an investigation into some very necessary topics.”
Junger, a critically acclaimed journalist, directed “Restrepo” with the photojournalist Tim Hetherington after the two began covering the war for Vanity Fair. In nearly two years of traveling into and out of the region (sometimes they were there at the same time, sometimes they weren’t), the pair captured the gritty and human moments of a platoon fighting the Taliban in the dangerous battleground of the Korengal Valley.
As Junger and Hetherington tell it, the U.S. soldiers erected a battle station in a particularly dangerous perch (named after a fallen soldier in their platoon) as they fought their slippery enemy. In the film, the soldiers’ mandate (carving out a safe civilian pathway between two trouble spots) seems at once specific and a little murky, but they carry out their mission with a mixture of gallows humor, solemnity and youthful zeal; indeed, the movie’s great triumph is showing the schizophrenic qualities of life there, in which adrenaline and tedium come in equal doses. The film is also leavened by humor, as the local U.S. Army commander several times attempts a meeting of the minds with Afghani elders, to little avail.
Junger and Hetherington offer little political context and no voice-over explanation, and as a result, “Restrepo” achieves a kind of verite intensity that has eluded many of the more packaged contemporary war documentaries, while also reaching a level of depth that almost no conventional broadcast-journalism segment could ever reach.
“As a photojournalist I find there’s always the temptation to show the easy emotion of the lives of people in war-torn areas,” Hetherington said in an interview last month at the Cannes Film Festival. “We wanted to avoid that.”
If “Restrepo” shows the ambiguities of fighting in Afghanistan, Bar-Lev shows the flip side: how the war plays at home -- and how, in a sense, soldiers end up there in the first place.
By now, the rudiments of Pat Tillman’s story are well known. Tillman was a star cornerback in the NFL who, eight months after the Sept. 11 attacks, decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Afghanistan, where, in the spring of 2004, he was killed. The military insisted that his death came in a heroic battle against the Taliban, but after years of investigation (and spin), it was revealed that he died in a friendly-fire accident.
Bar-Lev culls the story in a compelling and even blood-boiling way, as the cover-up is increasingly probed by the Tillman family, including Pat’s wife, brothers and particularly his feisty mother, Dannie. In a startling scene set at a congressional hearing, the film shows how the highest levels of the Defense Department conspired to keep the circumstances a secret and Tillman a hero -- in the interest, Bar-Lev demonstrates, of creating a war-recruitment tool.
“The lionization of Pat Tillman was not about the truth,” Bar-Lev says. “It was about telling people what they wanted to hear, or really, what the military wanted them to hear.”
Bar-Lev, who previously took on child genius and hyper-ambitious parents in the art-world documentary “My Kid Could Paint That,” also shows with great nuance how Tillman defied both the characterizations of him from the left and the right. Tillman was a man, for instance, who gave up a well-compensated life as a pro athlete to enlist in a war but also was a voracious reader of Noam Chomsky.
Still, unlike “Restrepo,” there’s a political message to Bar-Lev’s film (Michael Moore turned out to a screening earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and said in an interview afterward that “it was one of the most important movies you’ll ever see about the U.S. military”), although such messages are implicit and aimed at the echelons of power more than at military policy.
“I don’t think of it as an antiwar film. I want people on the right and left to be open to engaging with it,” Bar-Lev says of his movie, which the Weinstein Co. will open in theaters later this year. “I did want to make a film that said we should be honest about war and not cloak it in Hollywood mythology.”
As fighting in Afghanistan continues, all three documentarians say that audiences at this historical moment are best served by films that center on specific players instead of the larger conflict, counter to the thinking that war movies should go from small to big as time passes.
“Tim and I saw these soldiers first and foremost as human beings and young men in conversation,” Junger says. “I think that’s the most important thing any film about war could show.”