"Hell And Back Again" is the real, bitter truth behind the glossy Marines commercials, the pompous imperial rhetoric of politicians and it serves as a counterweight to our culture of video game-minded ignorance about war and violence. With a brilliant narrative technique, director Dangfung Dennis follows the trials at home and on the field of Sgt. Nathan Harris, who is seriously wounded in Afghanistan and must adjust to a life of recovery and pain, added to his new struggle is the leftover bloodlust of a senseless conflict.
The film tells two parallel stories of the same man. Dennis intercuts between Harris's time in Afghanistan and his recovery period at home as he deals with medications, finding an appropriate house and realizing his days as a grunt are over. His wife Ashley stands by him the whole way, even enduring the ghosts of war stirring inside him. These are powerful moments in their simplicity, the whole Spartan image teenagers are fed on the TV ads and through neo-propaganda films like the recent "Act Of Valor" is stripped down to the bare reality: The average soldier is a working-class citizen, not a comic book character. Nathan Harris is the perfect embodiment of the modern American male in his mid-20s: Nice but a bit ignorant, we notice he has few interests aside from guns and video games, and as he explains, when he was a teenager he "just wanted to kill people." In that one sentence we see clearly what we're producing as a society: A mindless, aimless generation easily picked up by the war machine and sent to fight in a land they know nothing about. The scenes involving Harris dealing with his injury are harrowing and drive home the reality of being hit by a bullet, without having to say too much the film makes the point that the human body is fragile and when it is shattered the experience is life-altering.
Some of the documentary's most memorable moments take place in Afghanistan where we see Harris as a serious, focused Marine leading his men. But it's interesting to see such dedication in a combat zone where it's hard to see the point of waging the war itself. The classic scenarios in any foreign occupation are here as soldiers, including Harris, try to reason with an ancient people they know nothing about, trying in vain to justify their reasons for being in the country. There are moments where Afghan elders make it clear that they don't like either the Taliban or the US, but they also make it clear that it is the US military presence causing the most damage. We see Marines using vague rhetoric about bringing freedom from oppresson, but the Afghans simply want to live their lives and tend their land. It feels like you're watching Marines march through an alien world where they have no business meddling. It's another country with a compeletly different culture, who are we to tell them how they should live? This sort of question naturally presents itself as you see resources and men wasted on a futile mission.
"Hell And Back Again" is filmed with great skill, the cinematography adds a cinematic scope to a very down to earth story. The editing is impressive in the way it links Harris's experiences at home and in Afghanistan, using sometimes great sound transitions to create an almost dreamlike effect. But in the end this film's real merit is in its powerful story and the way it serves as a document of one man's experience, but also as a document of where we are now as a people and country. Like Oliver Stone's "Born On The Fourth Of July" this is a film that uses the shattering of a man's physical being to say deeper, wider things about war and the misguided use of violence as idealism. "Hell And Back Again" is memorable and explores themes which will remain relevant as long as nations venture into unknown lands, creating more victims of history.