Hell and Back Again (2011)

Directed by Danfung Dennis

The objective of a documentary film is to document reality. This often comes in many different forms with many different styles but the core principle is the capture of truth, as slanted, biased or shadowed as that truth may be. So what happens when the subject of said documentary seems shrouded in a ghostly nightmare which is a mirror of the truth? Soldiers come home from war every day, and for that we are very thankful, but they are often never the same again after performing their thankless work overseas. So what happens when a wounded man returns home to his wife in America, battling demons from a world foreign to those without an M-4? What happens when he is constantly on pain medication and has a cowboy mentality?

There is no originality in the idea of a film featuring a soldier returning home and coping with assimilation back into civilian society. The Best Picture winner from 2009, The Hurt Locker, featured a few scenes of maladjustment for its lead character. For the lead character here, Nathan Harris, the struggle is both physical and mental. On the last leg of his tour in Afghanistan, Harris was shut through his hip and leg, rendering his right leg useless until the time comes that it should finally heal with the help of a metal rod. Now back home, even the simplest of discussions can turn into arguments and even the simplest of sounds or minute problems can explode to cause great stress.

The style the film takes does a great service to the horrors Harris is going through in his recovery not only from the injury, but from war as well. Inter cut with his encounters at home is footage of his unit on the ground in Afghanistan, fighting what seems to be a ghost. Certainly the camera team could have missed some of the more graphic shots of the firefights, leaving out any evidence of the enemy whom was being pursued, but it appears to the audience as though they are chasing something that doesn’t exist, and firing back at the air in hopes of defending themselves and this country’s freedom. The fight scenes are as stirring as those in Restrepo from a year or so ago, and the homefront scenes as heartbreaking as anything else.

I think the simplicity of war is what makes the complexity of every day life difficult to live with. In war, there is so much structure and straightforward orders handed down by the chain of command which is never question, but when it comes to democratic life back in the States with his family and friends it becomes difficult to bear. One of the things which accents this disconnect so well is the stunning cinematography which is captured here. It seems like the best war photographers, like James Nachtwey (who had a documentary made on his brilliant career worth checking out, War Photographer), were on hand to shoot this film with such breathtaking and horrific beauty. This may be the best shot documentary I have ever seen.

War documentaries seem like an easy choice for the Academy when it comes to Documentary Feature nominees, but in the case of Hell and Back Again, director Danfung Dennis has crafted a unique perspective on the psychological hell of war, and the equally grueling part of returning home from it, and having to live with what you have experienced in war. The personality of Nathan Harris is perfectly suited for this film because of his attitude towards war. We see him playing Call of Duty, and I sit there wondering what it means for a real soldier to play a simulation of war. He shows his wife how to operate the handgun, and I sit in deep tension as he handles the gun because I know of his unstable mental state because of the trauma he has gone through. It is not always an easy film to digest, but I’ll be damned if it is not one of the most gripping, interesting, and stylistically impressive documentaries I’ve seen this year.

***1/2 – Great


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