The Fallen: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington and photojournalist Chris Hondros brought war home to us

Hethrington-Hondros

Image Credit: Phil Moore/Getty Images(2)

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 (pictured, left), who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade along with the exceptional photojournalist Chris Hondros (pictured, right) 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.

Editor’s note: The above photograph shows Hetherington, at left, climbing from a building in Misrata on April 20, 2011, and Hondros, at right, walking in Misrata on April 18, 2011.

Comments (15 total) Add your comment
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  • Allison

    This news came the same day I heard that three Soldiers in a friend’s unit had been killed in Afghanistan – I really hope we can find a workable solution soon.

  • topazbean

    A very moving article EW. More like this, please.

  • 4k4k

    I actually saw Restrepo this year and what a brave man Tim Hetherington was. What really struck me was how in all the danger they were in at times, Tim was probably in the most danger since he had to carry a camera. However, what Tim has taught us is the camera can be a more powerful weapon than any firearm. Tim Hetherington was our eyes for the world and with him gone we will all be a little bit more blind.

    • Jeremy DC

      Restrepo was a great movie and not to be disrespectful but in no way was he in the most danger because he was carrying a camera.

      • Cami

        I think 4k4k was just trying to state that it must have been moderately hard to carry the film making equipment through a war zone.
        (I myself have no idea what kind of cameras were used so I don’t know)

  • Anne

    Thank you for writing this post. I think it’s important that the news of both their life’s work and death reach as many people as possible. I’m pleased to see an entertainment site such as EW contributing to this point in such a well-written and analyzed post. Also, everyone should see Restrepo. I saw it three weeks ago and will continue to think about it for weeks to come.

  • Kat

    Lovely post. I am unfamiliar with the work of these men, but I respect what they did and I would like to familiarize myself because it sounds incredible. I could never be brave enough to risk my life to be the eyes and ears for a faraway audience, but I’m grateful to people like this who do find the courage to do such important work.

  • jack

    Thanks for a well-written, thought provoking article. Not often you see stuff like this on EW. I guess the lack of comments indicates why…

    • topazbean

      Partly true – but if you spend ages courting a community of commenters that will do nothing to spew bile and nonsense about a celebrity’s latest break-up, then they’re not going to show much interest in a discussion like this. Plus, there’s seems to be very limited moderation on this site, given the amount of spam that gets through, which again lowers the tone of discussion and puts more thoughtful posters off.

      Having said that, I have felt like there have been some more interesting discussions going on on the site recently in the comment threads. Not sure how it’s happened but I’m not complaining.

  • j

    best article ive read on ew thus far. thanks!

  • sakara

    sad to say, but most hollywood fans don’t know these dead photo journalists ever existed.

  • BC in NC

    It appears I could not post the link here but our local paper has an article about photographer Chris Hondros written by a staffer who knew him.

    Go to newsobserver.com and in the ‘News’ dropdown, click on ‘Shaffer.’

  • Marie

    I had the pleasure of growing up with Chris and his family. They are wonderful people and Chris will be missed dearly. All our love and prayers go out to the family

  • Iconcur

    Thank you for this. They deserved this tribute and more….sorry state of afffairs when the word journalist has to describe both Hetherington and Ondros as well as the “reporters” who follow Lindsay Lohan around.

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