AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | October 19, 2011
Director: Danfung Dennis
It is the Summer of 2009. A decisive operation is launched by the United States to begin a new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The U.S. Marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment are dropped deep behind enemy lines to seize a key objective…
Danfung Dennis’s Hell and Back Again opens with Echo Company preparing to take a Taliban stronghold; during their mission, they are ambushed and lose a man. Six months later — near the end of his deployment with Echo Company — Sergeant Nathan Harris is critically injured by a bone-shattering bullet to his hip. Dennis then follows the 25-year-old Harris back to his home in North Carolina, where he and his wife try to piece their lives back together again.
While in North Carolina, Hell and Back Again ponders if and how a war-ravaged Sergeant can readjust to the civilian world, where parking a car at Wal-Mart becomes more stressful and difficult than time spent behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. When Harris says, “I would rather be in Afghanistan where it’s simple,” we believe him because we can tell just by looking at him how mentally and physically painful his post-Afghanistan life has become.
Harris’ civilian life is a relentless cycle of pain, pills, and nausea. He wheels around town, perpetually over-medicated and depressed. This is the very same guy who initially joined the Marines because he always wanted to kill people. Even now, Harris plays with loaded guns as if they are part of a video game. He would return to Afghanistan in a heartbeat. Even his wife admits that Harris turns in to a different person sometimes; in fact, the man she married will never be returning home.
As if visualizing the post-traumatic flashbacks that Harris must be experiencing, Hell and Back Again seamlessly bounces from Harris’ present day experiences to his time spent in Afghanistan. Obviously not knowing that Harris was going to get injured in battle, Dennis initially tagged along with Echo Company as a full-immersion war documentary ala Restrepo and Armadillo. The war footage is brutal and ugly, but not nearly as scary as the noisy, crowded and fluorescent world waiting for Harris back in the United States.
Strangely enough, Dennis breaks from his cinéma vérité form at the end of Hell and Back Again in making the unlikely decision to visually reenact the scene of Harris’ injury while Harris recollects the event in voiceover. This is Hell and Back Again‘s one major flaw; otherwise, Dennis’ film is masterfully constructed documentary using witty metaphoric editing techniques that bring to mind Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike.
I do have a personal gripe against Hell and Back Again though, and that is due to my inability to find Harris to be a likable or empathetic subject. I constantly felt myself getting annoyed by him, practically hating him; whereas a documentary like Where Soldiers Come From succeeds in convincing me to sympathize with and develop an emotional attachment with its subjects. I really needed to like Harris in order for Hell and Back Again to work for me. Of course most critics seem to have an unabashed love for Hell and Back Again, so maybe it is just me who feels this way.