Announcing today that he was replacing General McChrystal with General Petraeus as the top commander of US forces in Afghanistan, President Obama insisted that this "is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy." At this hour, on this day, in the immediate wake of the media brouhaha set off by McChrystal's ill-considered remarks to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, remarks that can only rattle the confidence of US allies and, more importantly, that of the men and women in uniform in the ground in Afghanistan, and, too, remarks that can only embolden Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the president's reaffirmation of his war strategy was all but inevitable. However. No one's pretending that the next news cycle won't be all about debating all over again the policy that the Obama administration spent weeks agonizing over last fall. Two documentaries — Restrepo, opening on Friday, and The Tillman Story, slated for an August release — are primed to ensure that this debate stays hot all summer long.
"In the summer of 2007, two Western journalists dug in with a platoon of American soldiers on a 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley, a strategic outpost near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan," writes Ella Taylor. "The mountainous region was infested with Taliban fighters and possibly was also used by Al Qaeda leaders as a base of operations. On assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger also shot 150 hours of footage documenting life at the hair-raisingly exposed US Army station."
Also in the Voice, Rob Nelson, introducing his interview with Junger: "Restrepo is a nerve-jangling work of 'you are there' combat correspondence. It's also being pitched as the first apolitical war documentary of the post-9/11 era. Named for the platoon's fallen medic, and for the outpost that the soldiers erect in his memory, Restrepo adopts the grunt's p.o.v. through battle and boredom alike, eliciting sympathy for young American men fighting — and sometimes dying — half a world away from home."
"Restrepo has been deemed an apolitical documentary by its directors," notes Matthew Connolly in Slant, "as well as the many who praised it at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. And indeed it is: Save for a smattering of bare-bones explanatory intertitles, the film espouses no interest in explaining the tangle of corruption, religious fanaticism, and military error that has kept the United States and others embroiled in Afghanistan.... By keeping the perspective tightly centered on the platoon and largely downplaying the war, Hetherington and Junger give the soldiers' exploits an oddly generalized character. The men will discuss the objectives of individual missions: a road to be protected or village elders to be consulted. The big picture, however, feels just out of reach. One could perhaps take this as a political comment in and of itself: the disconnect between a war's architects and executors."
"It's a lovely thought, that we care for the soldiers who do the fighting regardless of politics at hand," writes David Carr in a piece for the New York Times on how Restrepo has been received so far. "But for the most part public interest and understanding of what American soldiers do on our behalf remains remarkably limited in wars that go mostly untelevised and undernoticed. American men and women fight, die and kill a long ways from home, and many want it to stay that way." He quotes Daniel Battsek, who runs National Geographic Films, the company releasing the film: "We weren't burdened by the baggage of classic documentary filmmaking. And that included letting people draw their own conclusions."
More on Restrepo from Zak Gottlieb (Twitch), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). War photographer Michael Kamber talks with Hetherington for the NYT. Lauren Wissot talks with both directors for Filmmaker. Update, 6/24: Viewing (4'11"). Damon Smith talks with Junger and Hetherington for Reverse Shot.
Updates, 6/25: "Any viewer superficially acquainted with the literature and cinema of modern war will have a sense of the peril and tedium that define a soldier's daily experience," writes AO Scott in the NYT, "and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have spawned a number of serious and well-made films, both fictional and not. What distinguishes Restrepo — which belongs with The Hurt Locker and Gunner Palace on the short shelf of essential 21st-century combat movies — is not only its uniquely intensive focus on a small group of men in a particular time and place, but also its relentless attention to the lethal difficulty of their work."
At the AV Club, where Chris Kompanek interviews the directors, Noel Murray gives the doc an A-. More from Chris Barsanti (Filmcritic.com), Amy Taubin (Artforum), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), James van Maanen and Genevieve Yue (Reverse Shot). Update, 6/26: Stephen Saito talks with the directors for IFC.com. Update, 6/28: So, too, does Aaron Hillis at GreenCine Daily.
Let's have director Amir Bar-Lev introduce The Tillman Story:
I've posted the trailer in the Los Angeles Film Festival entry as one of the ongoing updates. But let's go back to that Rolling Stone article for a moment: "McChrystal took part in a cover-up that would have destroyed the career of a lesser man. After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire.... A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman's death. 'The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat's true actions,' wrote Tillman's mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the 'golden boy' of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command."
"While Knight and Day isn't a sequel, comic book movie, or adaptation, it does recall the bygone days when almost every generic TV show and movie was defined by the buddy system," writes Simon Abrams in Slant. "In those wild and wooly days, it seemed like every cop, lawyer, private investigator, bounty hunter, and truck driver teamed up with someone that was his or her polar opposite. In Knight and Day, she's a delicate, even precious, tomboy and he's a deranged spy. That's all the setup you need and all the setup you get."
"It's been close to 30 years since Tom Cruise first donned the Wayfarers in Risky Business," writes the AV Club's Scott Tobias, "but here he is again in Knight and Day, and nothing's changed — not the sunglasses, not the shit-eating grin, not the air of supreme self-confidence that carries him from the first frame to the last. In spite of the many hairline cracks in his veneer of cool — his performances in Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, his very public meltdown, the natural persistence of middle age — Cruise continues to pretend he's on top, rather than revealing himself as slightly vulnerable and human.... It's profoundly boring to watch a hero without weaknesses; after all, even Superman has Kryptonite."
AO Scott in the NYT: "None of this would be objectionable if the director, James Mangold — who has acquitted himself admirably in such pictures as Heavy, Cop Land, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma — demonstrated any flair for silly, breakneck action choreography. Instead, the stars grimace (Mr Cruise), screech ([Cameron] Diaz) and crack wise (both of them, gamely enunciating lines from a drab script by the first-timer Patrick O'Neill) in front of a green screen onto which computer-generated images have been slapped together with the meticulous care of a high school yearbook staff wielding Photoshop on deadline."
More from Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), John Gholson (Cinematical), Jesse Hassenger (L), Dan Kois (Voice), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune), Mary Pols (Time), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Matt Prigge (Phildelphia Weekly), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago), Dana Stevens (Slate), Kenneth Turan (NPR), Keith Uhlich (TONY), Lindy West (Stranger) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline). Update, 6/24: Steven Zeitchik profiles Mangold for the Los Angeles Times.
Meantime, the Brussels Film Festival opens today and runs through June 30. Aurore Engelen has an overview at Cineuropa.
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