Marine's battle goes on at home
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov 18, 2011
"Hell and Back Again" packs a lot into a little documentary, switching between intense Afghan war footage and scenes of the slower-moving, but no less intense, stateside recovery of its subject, wounded Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris. It's filled, quite literally, with blood, sweat and tears.
The only thing missing is an identifiable enemy.
The Taliban fighters that Harris and his men are shown looking for, hiding from, shooting at and getting shot by throughout the film are never seen on camera, even in death. Press materials for the film, begun in the summer of 2009 by embedded photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis, call the insurgents "ghostlike," but they're even less corporeal. Their bullets, mines and bombs are capable of maiming and killing American boys, but the people responsible for sending the destruction our way remain eternally, maddeningly out of reach.
That's only the most obvious of the many frustrations Harris faces in the course of this disturbing film, which paints a picture of a foreign war in which the people we're theoretically saving say - repeatedly, and on camera - that they don't want us there. It's a war whose fallout, both physical and emotional, lasts well beyond the return of this self-described grunt to his North Carolina home.
Harris's rehabilitation from a ghastly leg wound and his attempt to reintegrate into civilian society gives the film its thrust.
But the subtext of futility gives it its depressing power.
Dennis's camera alternates between sequences in Afghanistan - from harrowing firefights to hair-pulling negotiations with angry villagers - and sequences in North Carolina, where Harris must contend with the more mundane annoyances of congested Wal-Mart parking lots and balky fast-food drive-throughs.
It's enough, Harris says, to make him want to go back to Afghanistan.
"Hell and Back Again" is not the first film, of course, to look at post-traumatic stress disorder, let alone to take note of the more ancient horrors of battle: its confusion and contradictions. But the documentary's strength lies in its wholehearted embrace of that ambiguity.
Dennis's film is put together without narration, save for an occasional on-screen title that advances the story. "Medics were unable to save Lance Corporal Sharp" is one particularly sad example that appears after a member of Harris's company is fatally wounded.
Rather, "Hell and Back Again" tells its tale through stark and troubling juxtapositions. A scene of Marines on patrol in Afghanistan is contrasted with Harris, on his couch, playing a violent, first-person-shooter video game.
The movie's subject seems like a good guy, and viewers will root for his recovery. But back in North Carolina, Harris still plays with his (loaded) gun a little too much for his own good. He sleeps with it under his mattress, in fact, and at one point aims it at someone in apparent anger.
Harris's wife, Ashley, speaks about her husband's blind rages, but it isn't clear whether they're the result of physical pain, PTSD, the stress of rehab or regret at the fact that this 26-year-old - a professional killer since age 18 - will probably never return to combat.
The film suggests that it doesn't really matter whether Harris ever gets back in uniform. He's forever carrying around a piece of unexploded ordnance in his head.
Contains obscenity and disturbing images of wartime wounds and death.