Judge Erich Asperschlager will never go back to Hell. The service was terrible.
"What does it mean to lead men in war? What does it mean to come home?"
How should we measure the cost of war? In dollars, in lives, in ground gained or lost? Hell and Back Again explores the human cost of conflict through the experience of one Marine.
Facts of the Case
In 2009, the U.S. military launched an aggressive campaign in Afghanistan that marked the largest helicopter assault since Vietnam. During the conflict, Sergeant Nathan Harris was shot in the hip during what was supposed to be the penultimate mission of his tour. He returned to North Carolina with a metal rod in his leg and the difficult task of re-integrating into life back home. In Hell and Back Again, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis brings the viewer deep into both sides of Harris's struggle, from firefights and hostile locals in Afghanistan to the equally disorienting world of cramped big box store parking lots, pain pills, and physical therapy.
To tell Harris's story, Dennis flips back and forth between Afghanistan and North Carolina. The juxtaposition is presented by Dennis as a window into Harris's psyche. It's not clear which place he'd rather be. The U.S. may be safer, but it's also confusing and cluttered. On the battlefield, Harris is in control. At home, he is in constant pain, relying on his loving and patient wife Ashley to dress him and drive him around.
In Afghanistan, the danger builds as Echo Company pushes deeper into Taliban territory, culminating in the firefight during which Nathan's hip was shattered by a bullet. At home, he seems to be in good spirits despite his injury. As time passes, however, the cracks start to show. The story arc may have more to do with the way the film was assembled than the actual timeline of Harris's homecoming, but Hell and Back Again never feels dishonest.
This isn't the first documentary to go up close with soldiers on the frontline. In 2010's Restrepo, also set in Afghanistan, the danger is more palpable, but Hell and Back Again is more uncomfortable because it brings the conflict stateside. At home, Harris sounds reasonable most of the time, but when he takes out a loaded pistol and offers an impromptu shooting lesson in his living room, something feels off. Part of Nathan's disconnect can be attributed to his pain medication, but the film's parallel storylines show how difficult it can be for a soldier when combat and family collide.
In the past two decades, war films have become synonymous with jittery, hand-held camera footage. Most of those are big-budget Hollywood movies going for a low-fi look. Hell and Back Again is the opposite, a small-budget documentary that looks like a major studio release. Danfung Dennis shot his film using a Canon 5D Mark II and edited it on his Mac, which highlights the ever-narrowing gap between a filmmaker's ideas and his ability to bring them to the big screen. This is a gorgeous hi-def film. Details are sharp, shots are beautifully composed, with natural colors, even in low-light. Hell and Back Again's cinematography would be praise-worthy if it were a scripted drama. That Dennis was able to capture such impressive, intimate footage in the heat of combat makes this a real achievement.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix doesn't have the big booming surround score of a Hollywood war film, but it is dynamic and clear. Sound plays an important part in the transitions between the dual storylines. The audio doesn't suffer for having been recorded live on location. Dennis must occasionally rely on captions to make sure the audience understands everything being said, but it never distracts from the organic mix.
Hell and Back Again doesn't have deleted scenes that usually appear on documentary DVDs and Blu-ray. Instead, the extras seem made for the soldiers and families of soldiers who will buy this set, focusing on the stigma against returning soldiers seeking mental help:
• Audio commentary with Danfung Dennis and editor Fiona Otway. Unlike most commentaries, this one plays over a completely silent version of the film. There are occasional stretches where no one talks, but what they have to say is as fascinating as what's on screen. Dennis fills in the back story of how he came to join Echo Company in Afghanistan, and how that led to him connecting with Harris back in the States. The commentary ends with Nathan and Ashley's reaction after seeing the film for the first time.
• "Technical Gear Demo" (5:43): A thorough overview of the equipment Danfung Dennis used to shoot the film, as well as the issues he ran into in the field.
• "Hell and Back" (3:13): A makeshift music video for the documentary's theme song, written by composer J. Ralph and sung by Willie Nelson.
• "Did You Kill Anyone?" (7:10): Footage from a military orientation session for families of returning soldiers, focusing on how to help them reintegrate.
• "Invisible Wounds" (4:13): Part of a military seminar for soldiers, encouraging them to ask for help if they need it.
• "Collateral Damage" (3:00): The only deleted scene, from Afghanistan, of Harris and his fellow soldiers talking about the mission they just finished and the one they are about to begin.
• "Blue Star Families PSA" (0:30): A celebrity PSA encouraging troubled soldiers to seek help.
Documentaries that show the realities of war are important, not because they fuel pro- or anti-war arguments, but because they provide an antidote to the bumper sticker politics that dominate in the media. Hell and Back Again has nothing to do with policy. Harris admits that soldiers on the ground aren't focused on the big picture. Likewise, this film ignores political discussions, exploring the cost of war through the experience of one injured Marine. Harris stands in for every soldier paying the same price.
This film puts a human face on military sacrifice. Not guilty.
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