Sunday, August 08, 2010

So Long Lisbeth Salander

So sad. We just finished reading "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest," the final installment in Stieg Larsson's trilogy of wildly best-selling novels from Sweden. Having spent most of the summer enjoying the exploits of spunky Lisbeth Salander, we now have a big empty spot in our reading schedule.

Even sadder is that with Larsson having died shortly after finishing the trilogy, we probably won't be hearing anything new from Salander, other than wild speculation and debate over who should play her in the upcoming American version of movies based on the books. (Our vote: Nathalie Portman.) (Larsson did complete most of a fourth manuscript, so maybe we'll one day have a further visit from Lisbeth.)

So, what can we do with the rest of our summer?

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Restrepo"--Tough To Follow

We recently saw "Restrepo," a documentary film produced by Sebastian Junger (of Perfect Storm fame), which follows a company of American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

We'd have a hard time recommending the documentary unless you've also read Junger's recent companion book, "War," which in turn expanded on a series of Vanity Fair dispatches from 2008-09. Even then, it's tough to sit through.

The book is good, capturing the day-to-day life of American foot soldiers fighting, and sometimes dying--on an almost daily basis--at the furthest extension of western military power into that remote region of the world. It certainly makes you wonder what, exactly, we're trying to do in Afghanistan and whether the mission is worth it.

An important part of the book is probing the lingering social/emotional damage done to these young soldiers by their service.

Unfortunately, the movie, which has a limited release in theaters, is hard to watch. It's very raw footage, with almost no narration, and no other props of a good documentary--no maps, no context, nothing. For those who've read the book, it does put faces on the soldiers you meet while reading, but that's about it. For those who haven't read the book, like our friend, it was very confusing.

It's also difficult to watch because much of the action takes place with a handheld camera during combat operations, resulting in a lot of jerking and bouncing around. By the end, we were getting pretty queasy, like with motion sickness.

Another problem is that in combat, a camera person needs to keep his or head down. So we see lots of scenes of American soldiers firing loud, heavy-caliber weapons, but we never see who, or what, they're shooting at. The sense you get, however, is that they're firing large quantities of ammunition and ordnance at a very small number of enemy fighters, many of whom are local young men paid a few dollars by the Taliban to take potshots at the Americans.

It is a dangerous game, however, as we do see wounded, and killed, American soldiers. And occasionally some Afghans as well.

Raw film alone does not a good movie make, however. The footage shown in Restrepo* would best be used as the heart of a good television documentary, with a narrator, some maps, and some other visual and verbal aids to telling a story.

We can't imagine that Junger would have a very good book if he just transcribed a bunch of interviews with soldiers and stitched them together as separate chapters. Yet, that's the feel of the movie--it feels unfinished, lazy even.

So, read the book. And hope the film footage shows up later in a better edited, more finished format that tells a real story.

*The film is called Restrepo in honor of Army medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed during one of the frequent firefights in the Korengal Valley, and for whom one of the forward operating posts manned by the Americans was later named.