"I never thought I was going to make it out of the valley alive," says Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin in Korengal. Pemble-Belkin is from Hillsboro, and he looks profoundly out of place in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. Then again, most American soldiers look out of place in the Korengal Valley: When Captain Dan Kearney talks about what made his men's posting in the valley so dangerous, he recalls the Taliban crawling over the hills, vanishing among rocks and brush, constantly assaulting the Americans' makeshift outpost. "We're playing," Kearney says, "in their backyard."
If Kearney and Pemble-Belkin's names sound familiar, that's because they were profiled in the 2010 documentary Restrepo, alongside many of the other soldiers of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Restrepo, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, was nominated for an Oscar, and was nothing less than a gut-punch: Brutal and sharp-eyed, it offered a terrifying, humbling dose of insight into the Afghanistan war.
But while Restrepo was a lean, hard-edged thing, Korengal, directed only by Junger, is fragmented, patchy, and confused. Assembled from footage left over from Restrepo, Korengal still manages to do a great number of things right: As the camera floats among Battle Company members, we hear the soldiers' reflections on the bonds they share with each other, on race, on boredom, on the knowledge they could die at any moment. And the soldiers themselves come across just as personable, insightful, and flawed as they did in Restrepo. But while Restrepo distilled its observations into a bracing look at these men's lives, Korengal feels superfluous, leaning on a pushy soundtrack and aimlessly flitting from subject to subject. It never stays in one place long, and it never hits with the power of its predecessor.