(Hell and Back Again world premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through Docurama. Its official theatrical run began at the Film Forum on Wednesday, October 5th. As a selection in the DocuWeeks 2011 program, it also received limited one week runs in New York City at the IFC Center starting on Friday, August 19th, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 on Friday, Sept. 2nd. Visit the film’s official website to learn more. NOTE: This review was first published on Thursday, August 18, 2011, at the Filmmaker Magazine blog.)
In recent years American war docs have largely moved away from exposés on corruption and bad government policy. Instead, the focus has shifted to small, largely apolitical stories about life in the military and the human cost of war. Hell and Back Again raises the bar for the subgenre, taking the viewer front and center on the physical battlefield and deep into the complex and troubled psyche of a charismatic young soldier.
The film opens with the deployment of a company of Marines behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan, and the subsequent bloody battle. There’s something shockingly new and different about this footage—director Danfung Dennis fearlessly takes his Steadicammed Canon 5D into the thick of the fighting, right in the line of fire alongside the actual soldiers, capturing a POV of stunning immediacy. We’re used to the war camera in some way expressing an emotional reaction or commentary; Dennis’ footage is cool and clear, de-romanticized, unsentimental. Death comes suddenly; there’s no Spielbergian emoting.
Dennis then cuts to his main storyline: Sergeant Nathan Harris, the leader of that mission, has had his right hip and leg badly injured in an ambush just before the end of his deployment. He returns home to a life of doctor’s visits, long-term physical therapy, and vast quantities of meds. But he’s no pity party— even in a wheelchair he’s got plenty of swagger and charm. He can be a straight-faced comedian, playing to the camera: at Walmart he shows an old lady the horrifying scar on his butt, and gets a hug. His wife, Ashley, with her belabored two-tone hair and mall fashions, is a sweet and patient caretaker, and his vapid comedic foil.
Throughout Hell And Back Again, Dennis cuts back to Afghanistan as if tapping into the memories that Nathan’s trying to make sense of, with edits that make him appear to be having flashbacks. The device may sound corny, but it absolutely works, lifting the film beyond reportage into the lyrical, using a contrivance to convey a larger truth.
The combination of the Steadicam and Dennis’ resolve to be part of the action has the bizarre effect of making the war footage look somewhat hyperreal. A ballsy-as-hell cut from an actual mission in Afghanistan to a war-themed video game suggests how we perceive war from a safe distance, as well as how a soldier’s young mind translates what’s too horrific to process into a fantasy. It also conveys Nathan’s juvenile delight in the blowing-things-up aspect of combat.
His consciousness fading in and out of an opiate haze, Nathan has plenty of time to reflect on his own motivations and the larger meaning of the war. He remembers that they used to ask him why he came to the Marine Corps infantry: “I always told ‘em ‘cause I wanna kill people. And they always said that’s the best answer I ever heard.” Asked about the war strategy, he acknowledges that it “goes way above my pay grade. A lot of people don’t even understand what’s going on over there, the whole big picture—nobody knows.”
Nathan’s cocksure attitude gets put to the test as a full recovery starts to look unlikely; he becomes paranoid, his playful obsession with guns starts to get scary. At Walgreens, Ashley struggles to find the words as she confides to a clerk, “I could look in his eyes and it wouldn’t even be him, they were like just soulless, almost… He doesn’t really… become anybody but… just rage.”
Dennis’ film creates a rich visual juxtaposition between the dust and dirt and colorful fabrics of Afghanistan and the cold, shiny surfaces of the America Nathan returns to. “The Muslim radicals… they wanna stay livin’ in mud houses and straw roofs,” he says, “and nothin’ to do but… farm!” And yet there seems to be a numbing poverty of spirit in suburban North Carolina, with its drive-thru eateries and big-box cathedrals of consumerism.
Building to a gorgeous sequence that describes the experience of finding a way to hold onto life in the face of death, Hell And Back Again is a game-changer, with its no-holds barred determination to take the viewer into combat and into the very consciousness of a soldier. It explores in documentary what The Hurt Locker explored in narrative film: the psyche of a man who feels most at home in the midst of war.
— Paul Sbrizzi