Shooting from spring 2007 to summer 2008 (with sit-down interviews later), this award-winning photographer and best-selling novelizer duo relocate the war- doc battlefield from Iraq to Afghanistan (anticipating Obama). Despite sweat-soaked advance press, their sustained coverage of the U.S. Army’s Korengal Valley outpost differs from other platoon embeds more in degree than in kind, though its most emotionally raw moments are indicative of their military subjects’ exceptional comfort level with their observers across 10 extended visits.
Called the “Valley of Death” in Junger’s Vanity Fair articles, the mountainous locale is notorious for its fierce enemy fighters and fish-in-a-barrel air of doom, and it’s enough for the filmmakers to stay quiet and let the soldiers’ day-to-day life speak for itself. Hetherington and Junger’s death-defying presence during an ambush—after years of humvee patrols in Iraq-doc tag-alongs—is less striking than the physical intimacy glimpsed in a dance-party huddle or the culture of remembrance surrounding the fallen comrade the outpost takes its name from.
In fact, the documentary’s first half (after an explosive opening) is purposefully becalmed, and Hetherington, Junger, and editor Michael Levine play up the difference between dead-eyed post-traumatic interviews and the action. Visually, the arid yet woody outcroppings high above the valley are an intriguing new terrain, charged with as much significance as any Vietnamese heart of darkness or paranoid Baghdad street sweep.