The flicker of the newsreel defined World War II and Korea for viewers on the homefront, while Vietnam was the "television war," with grainy color 16mm unspooling on the nightly news. The first Gulf War was glowing green night-vision footage and smart munitions obliterating targets as filtered through the abstractly smooth cruise of sky-high aerial surveillance. Digital video is the medium of America's post Sept. 11 wars. Light, unobtrusive, affordable, capable of going anywhere and capturing almost anything, it has fueled an ever-growing number of cinematic accounts of what it's like on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, within the U.S. lines or without. Reporters and soldiers return home and write books, many of them indelible accounts, but it's not hard to imagine that such documentary footage will provide and deepen our understanding of these conflicts, in the years to come, and in the decades after that. Two new documentaries not only provide glimpses of almost unimaginable situations half a world away, they also hint at how much interpreting of this footage we all have left to do.
Journalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington spent the better part of a year embedded with the U.S. Army's Battle Company of the 503rd Infantry at a far-forward base in the Korengal Valley, an isolated hotbed of Taliban activity. They came back with Restrepo (Virgil DVD and Blu-ray), as intimate an account of American troops fighting the "war on terror" as we've yet seen. That intimacy comes from the intimacy of the embed; Junger and Hetherington weren't retreating to a hotel in the Green Zone every night, but roughing it with the soldiers on the scrubby slopes of the Korengal, burning their own feces and ducking under near constant fire, armed only with DV cameras.
The one framing device used in this straightforward account involves the figure who looms largest over Battle Company's tour and the resulting film: Pfc. Juan "Doc" Restrepo. Introduced mugging for a home-video camera in the first scene, Restrepo was killed soon after the company moved into its crude new base. The death of such a beloved member of the unit clearly haunts the men, and when they establish another forward base from the forward base, they name the tiny hand-dug outpost after him. His memory is always with them, as is, no doubt, the memory of what happened to him.
Restrepo features much that's familiar from similar accounts—go-nowhere meetings with local leaders, profane bullshit sessions, soldiers blowing off steam by silly dancing to cheesy disco—but also things never seen in a wartime doc before. During one of the many firefights the filmmakers are on hand for, tracers go zipping across the Korengal's vertiginous terrain in an image as unforgettable as any seen onscreen this year. And when another loved and respected member of the company is killed in a firefight, Junger and Hetherington are right there, capturing the troops' reactions. One soldier bursts out crying, a response both startling and moving in its humble humanity. One soldier interviewed mentions reservations about dubbing the forward base Restrepo—it was, after all, a horrible place. It must be a source of enormous satisfaction and pride for all involved that a film this compelling and important bears his name.
The Oath (Zeitgeist DVD) presents an altogether different view of the war between America and Islamic extremists over the past decade, with an altogether more ambiguous figure at its center. Laura Poitras' documentary focuses on two men, in fact: Abu Jandal, once a committed member of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguard, and Salim Hamdan, Jandal's brother-in-law and once a driver for the Al-Qaeda leader. Firebrand Jandal recruited Hamdan for jihad, and in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Hamdan was arrested and detained at Guantanamo Bay. Jandal was arrested, too, but he cooperated with the American FBI; the beginning of the war in Afghanistan still going on in Restrepo was delayed while agents debriefed him.
Poitras's cameras find Jandal free and working as a taxi driver in Yemen. He has earnest discussions with devout young men, telling them stories of his glory days as a jihadist, but he demurs when it comes to whether or not he's "recruiting" them. He disavows the Sept. 11 attacks, and then disavows his disavowal. And he allows Poitras to place a camera in his cab, trained on his face, as he chats with, cajoles, and lies to his fares. It seems he is who he appears to be—a former member of Al-Qaeda's inner circle—but the extent to which he is or is not that same person now is unknowable. Meanwhile, Hamdan serves an indefinite detention at Guantanamo, sues Donald Rumsfeld, is the first detainee convicted at a tribunal, finishes his sentence, and returns home to Yemen never having spoken to Poitras or any Western media, coming off rather well in absentia compared to his brother-in-law. The Oath is an enormously subtle film, not least in showing that what these two men were to blame for and to what extent they deserve what they each got is unknowable as well.