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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This week our film critic, David Edelstein, reviews two new documentaries. "Restrepo" is set in Afghanistan and is co-directed by journalist Sebastian Junger who wrote "The Perfect Storm" and war photographer Tim Hetherington.
Madeleine Sackler's "The Lottery" centers on high-testing charter schools in Harlem and the drawing that determines who gets in.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Maybe it's a reaction to empty summer escapist movies like "The A-Team" and "Knight and Day," but I've had a sudden urge to escape not from, but to reality. If you share that impulse, seek out a pair of unusually urgent documentaries, "Restrepo" and "The Lottery."
The grueling "Restrepo" takes its name from a mountainside outpost in the Korengal region of Afghanistan, where in 2007, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger got themselves embedded with the Second Platoon. That outpost or O.P. takes its name from a charismatic company medic whom we see in video that opens the film. He's on a train with his buddies, they've had a lot to drink, and he's whooping, we're going to war.
Not long after that, Juan Restrepo took two bullets in the neck.
O.P. Restrepo is the site of constant fighting between U.S. forces and the Taliban. The captain, Dan Kearney, describes its impact on the enemy as men show off their artillery.
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Captain DAN KEARNEY (Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment): When the boys built that base, the Taliban or the AAF forces in the valley, they were completely in shock. It was like a middle finger sticking out. And they realized once they could not knock off OP Restrepo, we had the upper hand. They started becoming afraid.
Unidentified Man #1: Get some Taliban. Woo.
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Unidentified Man #2: Hey, hit the bottom right. Hit the bottom right of the buildings.
Unidentified Man #1: Get some.
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EDELSTEIN: Those weapons send out balls of fire in long, deadly arcs, but no foreign force is likely to gain the upper hand in this place. The landscape from a distance seems barely marked, the bombs absorbed by the same trees and terraced hills that hide the Taliban whom we never actually see. We share the perspective of the men who wait for the inevitable assaults, their most trivial exchanges seeming, in this context, momentous.
Hetherington and Junger keep filming during the frequent firefights, and you can feel their fight-or-flight instincts in the way their cameras jerk and swerve and point at the ground or the sky. What carnage we see is after the fact, when men gather around the bodies of fellow soldiers in one case weeping in incomprehension.
The directors have said they meant for "Restrepo" to be objective and apolitical, its focus on the bonds among the men and what Junger calls in his brilliant new book "War," which expands on what we see in the film, the Zen of not effing up.
What should have been the most hopeful scene in the movie might be the grimmest. Kearney asks Korengali elders, some with beards dyed orange to show they've been to Mecca, to join with him, promising money and new projects, and they stare at him, expressionless. Then seven civilians in the same village are killed in a U.S. operation, and the few hearts and minds that were in play are forever lost.
Unlike Hetherington and Junger, director Madeleine Sackler sets out to incite and enrage. "The Lottery" is a devastating piece of propaganda. It unfolds on the home front, in New York City, where 3,000 small children apply for 475 slots in charter schools in and around Harlem. These autonomous public schools have been stunningly successful in turning out literate, motivated kids in neighborhoods known for high-double-digit dropout rates. But as Sackler profiles four families with children in the running, you get a sinking feeling there are nowhere near enough happy endings to go around.
These kids are heartbreakingly open and engaged and eager. But the true focus of "The Lottery" is the battle between Harlem Success charter schools president Eva Moskowitz and a ferocious coalition of charter-school opponents. How, given the high test scores, could the movement create such a violent schism in the community? Charter schools are non-union, and as Sackler frames the fight, it's the teachers' unions that are pulling the strings, using surrogate organizations like ACORN - as it was then called - and Democratic politicians whose campaign chests they fatten.
As "The Lottery" presents them, these politicians and community activists come off as working to keep in place a system that is objectively a disaster. It makes you wonder whether the kids who lose the lottery are the victims of chance or of forces more frustratingly human.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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