It used to be that the camera was considered the enemy of war. The Tet Offense was shown on the network news and has often been cited as the dealbreaker for The Vietnam War. Now it all depends where and how you aim and shoot, but with a video camera and some skillful editing, you can make some intimate and informative war films. Of course today's support for the soldier has increased, but point-of-view has become essential in how one perceives any modern campaign.
Such is the case for 'Hell and Back Again,' an honest portrait of gung-ho soldier Sergeant Nathan Harris, and a film which criss-crosses between serving the end of his third duty in Afghanistan and his homeridden rehabilitation from a wound he received just days before his last duty ended. At first we see him as an able commander, barking at and leading his troops through some harrowing campaigns as we see their counter insurgency increase the pressure on the Taliban.
At home Ashley, his wife, is supportive, and many of his fellow North Carolina residents receive him warmly. Rehabilitation takes its toll in the Harris home as we see VA meetings, rehabilitation sessions, trips to Wal-Mart, stops for multiple prescriptions, and home scenes generously provided. As we close in on the battles that led to his injury, the fallout of PTSD becomes more apparent. Even the rucuperating soldier admits that he prefers the rigors of Afghanistan over the little hassles that stress him out so keenly on the homefront. A bullet hit him in the hip, rickocheted through his right leg, and left him unable to walk and in great pain. In Afghanistan we seem him as a brave commander and the best of sometimes a bad lot at persuading Afghanistan citizens. (It becomes clear that soldiers increasingly have become diplomats, not an easy task as Afghanis sometimes view both the Taliban and United States as mutual enemies.) When we close in on the time of his war wounds, both parts of his story seem whole and complete.
'Hell and Back Again' is an unflinching look at a soldier's life both on and off the battlefield. It is a step up from the admirable 'The War Tapes' with Iraqi veterans, Zack Bazzi and Steve Pink, because it is tighter, shows more explicitly the dangers at the front, and more tangibly illustrates the consequences of their sacrifices. (It just amazes me how determined Sgt. Nathan Harris is to be rehabilitated, so he can serve on a fourth tour--probably no better able to do more than limp the rest of his life.) As a worthy recent Oscar nominee, 'Hell and Back Again' is an illuminating film and shouldn't be ignored.