In the past few weeks, New York City and the United States experienced a grueling, sweltering heat wave that swept over the East Coast after parching the rest of the country. This writer spent most of it indoors, in close proximity to a rumbling air conditioner — when I did go out, it was to shuffle onto the subway, and into a blissfully cool screening room. I knew little to nothing about the film and folded the press kit in my carry-on to avoid reading it — a clean slate.
Approximately 90 minutes later, I walked out with a declarative statement: We (that is, most of us) don’t understand war. Danfung Dennis’ Hell and Back Again is an audaciously unfiltered look at a Marine unit under fire in the arid depths of Southern Afghanistan. The intensity and bravado immediacy of these segments (shot by Dennis himself, a veteran still photographer, with a camera rig he’d built and attached to his body armor) is only matched by the psychological turmoil of one Nathan Harris, recuperating back home in North Carolina after a Taliban bullet shatters his femur and travels down his leg, tearing apart bone and tissue.
Utilizing a precise sound design by J. Ralph, Hell and Back Again gains most of its emotional power from contrasting Harris’ home life with wife Ashley to the arresting Afghan-set footage. Attached to a Marine unit tasked with weeding out Taliban insurgency, Dennis accomplishes the challenging task of gathering journalistically-viable footage while under fire — and what astounding footage it is. There’s no daring suicide missions, no marches into enemy nests, just a group of highly trained men jogging across an unwelcome climate filled with Afghan citizens who’ve been displaced by the Americans moving in and the Taliban opening fire immediately after.
We see several peace-keeping attempts, tactful commanders apologizing and reasoning with village elders — patience runs thin on both sides, and desperation mixed with frustration sets in. The troops meanwhile, come under fire from unseen sources, hitting the sand while the same questions get air time again and again — “Where are they shooting from? Can you see them?” The highly tactical warfare we’ve seen slickly presented time and time again is just that, a superficial fairy tale of men at war. The reality is exhausting to watch and I have a feeling that Dennis wants precisely that result.
When we cut from Afghan deserts to an air-conditioned Walmart that Harris navigates via a power chair of sorts, it’s a breath of fresh air, but Harris is at best uncomfortable in these surroundings. The stumbling block that is his shattered leg keeps the young man from returning to the field with his men. At home, Harris is a misfit prone to occasionally violent outbursts and a growing addiction to prescribed painkillers — not a bad man by any stretch of imagination, but a burden to his young bride. Ashley Harris braves the mood swings and the painful recuperation with a loving patience that’s almost superhuman. Her devotion echoes the efforts of countless wives, mothers and grandmothers nursing damaged GIs across the country and around the world.
Dennis takes one minor misstep when he visualizes Harris’ moments of fatigue or aggravation as flashbacks to the battlefield. It’s a very effective editorial choice but in a film so rooted in precise reality, the artistic choice feels hollow. At one point, Harris smoothly cuts from Harris playing Modern Warfare on is Xbox 360 to footage of the same man caught in a crossfire. The commentary is impossible to ignore but also out of place — it’s too on the nose, unsubtle and probably a scene that belongs on the cutting room floor despite the strong emotional response it elicits.
The film ends on an uncertain note that I won’t spoil here. We are witness to an impossibly gut wrenching scene of the remains of an Afghan soldier removed from the battlefield, his comrade sobbing uncontrollably — an ugly reminder that wounds don’t heal and men are sometimes reduced to disembodied flesh. In these moments, Hell and Back Again takes on a literal meaning insofar as we understand Hell to be a place of extreme terror and unlimited suffering — we watch these men put to the test, often scared and confused, trying to keep their wits and strength about them. Death is commonplace, but it’s the scars, physical and emotional, that take the longest to heal. Dennis’ work is one of the best documentaries of the year and an example of brave, uncompromising journalism.