Hell and Back Again is a painful and moving documentary. This is almost entirely because of its subject and the filmmaker’s access and less because of the filmmaker’s skill. Hell and Back Again follows a marine, Nathan Harris, back from his third tour in Afghanistan and injured severely. There is footage of that third tour, some of it right in the sticky stuff, and director Danfung Dennis delights in cutting back and forth between the two. In fact, visual juxtapositions seem to be Dennis’ raison d’etre and he finds both some of his best moments this way but it also gets into trouble.
Films take sides, even documentaries, and every movie has a point of view, nor would I belie Dennis his especially after he and his crew put themselves in the severest of danger to get the combat footage, but there are times when he draws connections that are in an ethical gray area for a journalist. He’s most successful when he blends a shot of real combat with a screenshot of a modern warfare video game or when he shows us Harris watching President Obama addressing the situation in Afghanistan and then cutting to Harris explain the same situation as succinctly to his wife. That’s fine, where it gets iffy is when Dennis starts making conclusions about what Harris thinks, presenting a shot of Harris holding his head with noise from real combat on the soundtrack or showing Harris listen to his doctor and blurring the image and obscuring the audio. Perhaps Harris has suffered flashbacks to his time in Afghanistan, it’s likely in fact, but he seems clear eyed and able to understand his doctor, so it seems a stretch to that he wasn’t capable of understanding.
Harris is really an interesting person, and he gets to show that more in the last two thirds of the movie when Dennis gets out of the way a little more. We get Harris in action talking with a group of Afghanis after his regiment has had a firefight with the Taliban the night before. We see a number of his interactions with Afghanis and Harris is always polite and sure to remind them that he and the American military apologize for any inconvenience and that it’s all for their eventual benefit. Seen next to another soldier who doesn’t handle the situations as well, Harris takes on a certain nobility for keeping his cool and his empathy in such a tense and frustrating situation. That’s why it’s jarring that he’s so aggravated at home. His leg was injured and he is confined to a wheelchair at first and later a cane and he can’t wait to get back to the corp. He’s told by his doctor that it will be a year at least and he is devastated. When his wife tries to remind him that he should be happy to have his legs or even to be alive, he holds his head in his legs.
He gets angry with her and one of the best moments in the movie comes between his wife and a check-out woman at a pharmacy who wants to make small talk and isn’t prepared to process the distressing information the wife offers up. Instead of being told what Harris thinks, which is speculative, we’re much better off making up our own mind, especially during a terrifying sequence when Harris, playing with his firearm, jokingly suggests playing Russian Roulette and we legitimately wonder if he’ll ever be alright.
Along with last year’s Restrepo, Hell and Back Again carries on an important tradition of bringing the realities of war to civilians, I wish its director would have trusted his subject more.