Hell And Back Again

Hell And Back Again


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Hell And Back Again follows Sergeant Nathan Harris' tour of duty with Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment in the Summer of 2009 and his subsequent recovery after being shot in the hip. The bone shattered, and he needed surgery to replace part of his lower leg with titanium.

The film cross cuts his tour in a piecemeal fashion with his recovery and reintegration into civilian life in all its exhausting detail. Getting dressed by his wife, Ashley, going to Wal-Mart (after hearing his story, a stranger asks if she can hug him) and getting frustrated by parking, the continuous shooting pain and risking painkiller addiction.

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"I would rather be in Afghanistan - it's simple."

Harris is a good choice for a documentary subject; he's a clear believer in the United States, and their place in the world. Early on, he reveals he wants nothing more than to return to Afghanistan and "kill people". His revelation that killing people was the best answer his drill instructor had ever heard about why he wanted to be a Marine brought huge black laughs. He loves Modern Warfare 2 - we see him playing the game, in silent, gaping pleasure. As we return to his tour, I'm struck by how similar the video game's set pieces were to the movie footage.

Even so, he's got a pragmatic attitude to death, knowing that there's nothing he can do, even when he and all his squad "do everything right". We see his friends and family, white trash wondering about why they're even there, with Fox News in the background. This is loosely cut against Obama's "friend to Afghanistan" speech.

On the ground, the Marines speak lines that appear fresh from a focus group or cynical communications office. Before being dropped behind enemy lines, they're drilled into being political instruments of warfare. "Every action we take is critical," they say immediately and without irony, reinforcing the idea that they're "experts in the application of violence".

When conversing with farmers, their lack of connection with the Afghani people is all too clear. The frequent firefights leave the displaced farmers with their food spoiled, and living near the local river gives their children diarrhoea. "We are living in a desert and our children are sick. What will our fate be?" "We are here to help Afghanistan!" This juxtaposition of destitution and Harris' fervent belief in the validity of the mission is simultaneously comic and disturbing.

Even more disturbing is his repeated fondling of firearms, with echoes of Taxi Driver, striking poses in front of friends and family. It's hard to shake the "I love my pistol" in a thick southern drawl - which makes his impromptu lecture on handling the gun to his wife all the more alarming.

We're privy to Harris' strenuous batch of physical therapy. Even towards the end of the film, he's told that he has six months to a year of recovery, and still needs a stick to walk. The primality of mobility grinds him down. The tumultuous mixture of post trauma stress, physical therapy, and duty-bound frustration takes a heavy cost. His realisation that he will always "have a limp", and "being a grunt is over" is painful to watch.

Undermining this drama is the use of sound from the war to represent post-traumatic stress. Triggers seem to be almost random: Ashley reading aloud a lengthy fast food order in their car, looking through a new family home, or a doctor's pain medication warnings. There’s nothing within these scenes to suggest Harris is remembering the war.

We are invisible participants in this. Only once, where director/cameraman Danfung Dennis is helped up after stumbling during a firefight did it break the illusion. The photography is sumptuous throughout - we often forget that this is a documentary, such is the quality of the footage; and that these are real people, with all their foibles. Dennis does not converse with Harris onscreen, which proves frustrating to those who lack the context of his implicit knowledge and relationship. Ironically, the mixture of subjective (even hallucinatory) editing and excellent sound mixing contrasts sloppily with this hands off approach.

It's a shame, since Hell and Back Again is an otherwise piercing look at the effects of modern warfare on the people actually engaged in political efforts to win hearts and minds.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2011
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A documentary examining one soldier's experiences after he is taken out of action by a serious injury.
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Director: Danfung Dennis

Year: 2011

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US, UK

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