Conscience Clear, Honor Clean
Published on October 4th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells0
“Hell and Back Again” opens on October 5 at Film Forum
Running time: 88 minutes; in English and Pashtu with English subtitles.
Danfung Dennis’s “Hell and Back Again” is a sincere essay on the cause and effect surrounding the cost of war for one Marine, in particular. While the scenario isn’t exactly groundbreaking (the amount of life after wartime-related films is certainly plentiful in American cinema, from “The Best Years of Our Lives” to the final scenes of the much-lauded “The Hurt Locker”), the frank physical and emotional realism, however, is.
In 2009, Dennis took his Canon 5D Mark II camera to southern Afghanistan and embedded himself within the U.S. Marines Echo Company’s 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. There he followed several Marines, though ultimately focusing on 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris who was shot in the hip by a Taliban fighter and send home to North Carolina to recover under the care of his wife, Ashley.
This recovery period is captured smartly in the sense that Dennis, though obviously very present in this young couple’s personal life, does not pull Harris and his family into an interrogation room and go to town with rhetorical, on-camera questioning. He also stays politically unbiased; given the circumstances and the universal unpopularity of the Middle Eastern wars the U.S. has engaged in, it would be commonplace to do so. However, Dennis focuses purely on the emotional and psychological dealings Harris has been dealt. (These scenes aren’t necessarily melodramatic or soul crushing – sure they’re sad, raw and honest. But the process captured is so, dare I say it, predictable that the wallop Dennis was trying to sock to us just grazes the chin: it’s not a blow to the senses or our morality.)
What does indeed allow “Hell and Back Again” to pull rank among its betters is the Afghanistan footage Dennis captures (the rest of the film is unfortunately forgettable because of reasons of being nothing necessarily new as prior noted). Not only are we seeing brutally open scenes of our soldiers in combat, we’re also witnessing immediate, direct accounts of our relationship with the Afghanis. Indeed, based on media coverage that’s soaked in the spectacular, Afghanistan is reported in the mainstream as a living hell where citizenry is merely an inconceivable allusion. Certainly Dennis’s footage shows the utter cruelty of how war has affected the daily lives of villagers and their children who are in the line of combat. Yet he humanizes it, in some sense, by choosing to show quiet scenes in these extremely remote villages, along with the token combative moments. (Simply watching a scene of the U.S. military conversing about the village it’s taken over to its native inhabitants by way of a translator shows more about the absolute fog of war than “Platoon” or “Black Hawk Down” could ever hope to achieve.)
“Hell and Back Again” does have a resounding echo of “is this worth it” ringing through it. As prior mentioned, it’s not necessarily polemical: it follows the rationale of Harris and his wife, not Dennis’s, for why he was in the Middle East and his apparent interest in wanting to go back, busted leg be damned. However, in the interim this isn’t possible. And this sense of cabin fever and uselessness Harris endures becomes hell unto itself. And now the real battle begins.