Saturday, January 28, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Hell and Back Again (2011) ****

NR, 88 min.
Director: Danfung Dennis
Starring: Nathan & Ashley Harris, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines

Most of the synopses I read about the Oscar nominated war documentary “Hell and Back Again” read some thing like, “a film about a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps who returns from the Afghanistan conflict with post traumatic stress disorder.” The only place I could actually find the name of the soldier, Nathan Harris, was the film’s website. Unfortunately, this is reflective of our country’s attitude toward our men in combat right now. We appreciate what they’re doing, but we don’t really care to know much about it.

This wholly original documentary shows us what Nathan did in Afghanistan and his life back in the States since suffering a crippling injury in the final days of his deployment. There are combat scenes in Afghanistan that show the chaos and confusion of a firefight. There are also scenes that depict the soldiers trying to establish relationships with the local Afghan citizens. They try to assure the Afghans that they are not there to hurt any innocents and that cooperation is necessary to success against the Taliban. The Afghan’s have the apprehension that you or I would if soldiers had invaded our neighborhoods and tried to tell us they didn’t want to hurt us. They also have a sense of helplessness about them because they never asked for any of this.

Harris’s story back home is intercut with the Afghanistan footage. He suggests that for him life was much easier in Afghanistan. The way director Danfung Dennis edits the two different worlds together; you can understand what Harris means. Harris’s life at home made me think only one thing—this couldn’t have been worth it for him. He lives in constant pain from his injuries and the metal rods holding his leg together. His wife loves him, but her reserved nature suggests she lives in fear quite similar to the Afghans’. The U.S. conflict in Afghanistan has taken much from the Harris’s lives as well.

I hope I don’t give the impression that the film is judgmental about the U.S. military, however. It isn’t. It merely observes. There is no narration beyond a few comments made by Harris himself. There are no talking heads explaining what has happened. There are a few facts delivered in typeface on screen, but mostly the movie observes. It is a fitting way to tell this story. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, as I’m sure the war doesn’t to the soldiers who fight it.

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