Back in the fall of 1941, John Ford, who had, in just three years, directed Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley, walked away from Hollywood and, at 47, gave himself to the Navy. For the next few years he filmed nothing but the Second World War. He was in North Africa when the Allies moved in. He boarded the U.S. aircraft carrier Hornet to film the Doolittle raid on Japan. He was on the beaches of Normandy for D-Day. And in the opening moments of Midway, he stood on the roof of a power station, filming enemy planes until a piece of flying concrete knocked him cold, then recovering and shooting some more. Many of the documentary shorts that came out of those years seem like crude propaganda now, but there is a moment in Ford’s 18-minute film The Battle of Midway — the first major movie to show Americans in combat during World War II — that explains in four words why Ford did what he did. As his camera captures U.S. sailors raising the American flag above a field of smoke and debris, the movie’s narrator says quietly, ”Yes, this really happened.”
I thought of Ford last week with the arrival of the terrible news of the death of Tim Hetherington, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade along with the exceptional photojournalist Chris Hondros in Misrata, Libya, on April 20. Hetherington was 40, and had spent more than a decade as a combat-zone photographer, winning renown for his work in West Africa and Afghanistan, but in recent years he achieved wider acclaim as he moved into documentary journalism. Last year’s Oscar-nominated Restrepo, a movie he codirected with journalist Sebastian Junger, looked, just months ago, like the beginning rather than the end of a brilliant filmmaking career.
If you haven’t seen Restrepo, you’ve missed not only the best nonfiction film of 2010 but perhaps the strongest and most honest depiction of life for American soldiers in the Afghanistan combat zone since the war began. The movie, which is available for instant streaming on both Netflix and Amazon, follows a platoon dropped into Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, where everything from the landscape to the local customs is fraught with peril. Their good intentions are not diminished by their fear that they are in dangerously over their heads — a belief that turns out to be grimly justified. Restrepo captures the combination of determination, disorientation, and despair that so many soldiers have said characterizes this war. Hetherington chose, out of respect, not to show graphic images of dead American soldiers or Afghan civilians. But do not imagine he whitewashed anything in Restrepo. It is a brutal, essential film.
To make it, Hetherington embedded with the troops for months, staying on even after he broke his leg while the men were pushing toward a Taliban stronghold, a moment he called ”not…a very good situation,” with a flash of the understated swagger that seems to go with doing what he did for a living. The resulting film was hailed in some quarters and condemned in others as being ”apolitical,” a word Hetherington himself used to describe it. No, Restrepo is not ”political,” in the sense that its narrative is not manipulated to conform to predetermined beliefs about whether the United States should be in Afghanistan. But it is always a noble and deeply political act to tell a story of war that many people do not want told, to present a reminder that wars are fought not just by human beings but by specific human beings, and to put yourself in harm’s way in order to hold a camera up to the world and say, ”This really happened.” Saying that his great, edifying work survives him is insufficient consolation. As we were reminded last week, it is horrifically easy to kill someone like Tim Hetherington, and impossible to replace him.