Friday, February 24, 2012

Hell and Back Again Movie Review

It often feels like every decade has its own subject that is annually nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars. This decade’s focus is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking through the records, I’m surprised to discover that only three have been nominated (with one winning). Although this year the Iraq War as subject made its way into the Documentary Short category so I guess that makes up some ground.

One of this year’s nominees in the feature category is Hell and Back Again about a veteran of the Afghanistan War who suffered a bullet wound that shattered hip and his femur. Now he gets around with a walker or wheelchair, goes to physical therapy and probably suffers from some form of PTSD although the film is never really explicit about any of it.


The approach taken by director Danfung Dennis is to simply follow Sergeant Nathan Harris with a camera after his return home. He lives each day in pain and grows steadily addicted to his pain medication, but all the while he allows Dennis’s camera into his life and home, sometimes capturing most intimate moments between Harris and his wife Ashley.

Dennis started as a photojournalist embedded with U.S. Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Many of the film’s scenes take place in Afghanistan and many of those are shot amid the heat of battle as bullets fly and soldiers literally fight for their lives. I don’t know if Dennis was operating on his own or if he had at least one other camera man with him, but the effect of Fiona Otway’s editing (what must have been a monumental task of cutting together thousands of hours of footage) is that the battle scenes feel almost staged like a Hollywood movie. The camera often seems to be everywhere it needs to be, which is obviously impossible for a single cameraman in the middle of a firefight.

But the whole movie is structured like a dramatic film with the Afghanistan scenes being cut into longer scenes of Harris’s life at home in North Carolina. The sound editing is even designed to resemble a fiction film. We see Harris, for example, in the car leaning his head into his hands. The dialogue track slowly drops out as sounds of war fade in and then we cut to the Middle East. The effect is just like a dramatic film where we believe Harris is recalling his memories of war during these contemplative moments while appearing to be in pain.

There are no interviews and to my recollection, Harris doesn’t ever talk directly to camera or to Dennis. The entire story is told through conversations with the people around him including Ashley, his doctor, and in one scene his fellow Marines. “War is hell,” I suppose is the general message Dennis wants to get across. He obviously recognizes that such a clich├ęd aphorism is known to just about everyone so he tries to move it away from abstraction by tying it to a personal story. I just don’t know how much we learn about Nathan Harris. We don’t have any idea what he was like before going to war and what we see of him acting out his duties as a Marine looks pretty much like I’d expect from any soldier.

The only hint we get of his past is when he says that he joined the Marines because he wanted to kill people. I’m not sure what Dennis wanted to convey by including that bit. What it tells me is that Harris’s violent tendencies after returning as well as his creepy interest in keeping a loaded firearm beneath his mattress positioned in such a way that he can draw it quickly and easily in the night if necessary have nothing at all to do with his experiences in war or getting shot. Those behaviors seem to me entirely congruous with what I might expect from a person whose principal reason for signing up is to kill other human beings. I don’t doubt that Nathan Harris suffers terribly both physically and mentally from both his wounds and his experience. I just doubt that this documentary is an effective way to express that suffering.

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