Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hell and Back Again (2011)

Documentary Film
Directed by: Danfung Dennis

Nearing the end of a six month tour of duty in Afghanistan, Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is severely wounded by enemy sniper fire. The sniper's bullet "blows half his ass off," as he describes it. 

Equipped with a customized Steadicam, filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded with Harris and the rest of his platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, when they were dropped behind enemy lines in Southern Afghanistan back in 2009. From the very start of the mission we witness the Marines fighting what seems to be a "ghost-like" enemy. The Taliban are not seen in the film, but the exchange of gunfire is real, as one of Harris' men are killed in the first hour of fighting on day one. Dennis got to know Harris while he was filming the combat footage, and continues the film in North Carolina when Harris returns home to recover from his wounds. The narrative jumps back ad forth between the combat footage and Harris' grueling recovery process; moreover, his return to civilian life.

It becomes crystal clear very early in the film that the "hell" of war does not stop on the battlefield.  The film documents Harris at home, dealing not only with his injuries, but also trying to cope with everyday life in American Society.  Signs of post-traumatic stress become evident with Harris when everyday annoyances like trying to find a parking space at a crowded WalMart frustrate him beyond what the average person would feel in the same situation. The injuries sustained by Harris are described and shown in graphic detail not only by the scars he has (which he reveals several times in the film), but also by the recovery process itself. Harris can not walk without the use of a cane or walker, the physical therapy he has to endure seems more painful than the injury itself.  Harris becomes dependent (even addicted) to the heavy narcotic pain medication he is on.  If there is anyone who deserves the title of "hero" in this film, it should be Harris' wife, Ashley. After surgery and rehab, Ashley is charged with the day-to-day care of her husband. She is the one who helps him with everything: from helping him get dressed to picking up his medications at the pharmacy.  It is clear that Ashley is afraid for (and at times of) her husband. She states that although she does love her husband, "there are times when he is almost like a different man."

In the combat footage of the film, Harris displays a natural ability to lead his men, not by unsung characteristics of heroism, but because he knows his job and he believes in the cause he is fighting for.  He is clearly a professional leader on the battlefield.  The scenes of Harris back home however, show an injured,  depressed, and immature kid who has an obvious unhealthy obsession with handguns. He is shown several times at home simulating Russian-Roulette, and incessantly loading and unloading a handgun which he "keeps loaded under his mattress." A veteran of three combat tours, Harris recounts how at age 18 he was the prototypical Marine who "just wanted to kill people." Now in his mid 20s, Harris reflects that being a Marine isn't as simple as just killing people. Harris wants to return to the front lines with his men; but, by the end of the film it becomes apparent to him what the audience already knows... that his injuries will prevent that from ever happening.

Was Harris' "hell" fighting in the war? or was it when he came "back?" That is the question that is left unanswered with words, but certainly not by the actions documented in this great film that unquestionably deserved a 2012 Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

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