Directed by: Danfung Dennis.
Hell and Back Again is not the first, nor will it likely be the last, documentary to follow soldiers at war in Afghanistan, and then follow them home, where they have trouble fitting back into society. This has always been a problem, as living day in and day out in a war zone, under constant threat of being wounded or killed is so vastly different from life at home, at peace, in America, that soldiers have always had trouble readjusting to civilian life. Hell and Back Again suggests that perhaps it’s even harder for these soldiers coming back from Afghanistan – at least in past wars, you knew who the enemy was, and felt you were doing something. But as this movie shows, the Taliban soldiers Americans are fighting against may as well be ghosts – you never see them, even when their bombs and gunfire rip you to shreds. More frustrating still, the civilians they are supposed to be protecting spend most of their time bitching to American soldiers about dead farm animals, ruined crops, and poor living conditions – and telling them that they do not want them there at all.
The movie follows Nathan Harris, who a week before his tour is supposed to end, gets severely wounded. A bullet enters from behind him, ripping through his buttocks, and then travels down his leg, shattering the bone, before finally exiting. He has a metal rod in his leg now that holds it all together, and he is undergoing physical therapy to try and get full use of the leg back – although he’s told he will always walk with a limp, at the very least. This 26 year old soldier freely admits that when he signed up for the Marines at 18, he told the recruiter that he wanted to join so that he could kill people – and even now, seeing what he has seen, and going through what he has gone through, and continues to go through, all he wants is to go back to the Afghanistan and fight alongside his fellow Marines. He has gained perspective from his time, but being a Marine is all he knows. He has traded the frustrations of war in Afghanistan for the frustrations of life in North Carolina – full Wal Mart parking lots, fast food chains, taking lots of pain killers, that the doctors tell him he will become addicted to – and prefers the war zone.
Harris seems like a nice guy – you cannot help but root for him to get better, and feel sympathy for everything he has gone through. I almost felt sorrier though for his kind wife Ashley, who seems to have almost never ending patience with him. Nathan is not easy to live with, because he needs constant attention, and he understandably gets very angry at times. But Ashley loves him, and so far, will stand by him through anything.
What stood out to me about Hell and Back Again is how much medical attention Harris receives – and far too much time obsessing over his guns – that he lovingly caresses. He even plays a mock game of Russian roulette with one – not ever actually pulling the trigger, but sticking a bullet in it and spinning it, and then looking to see if he would killed himself – or someone else – had they been playing for real. Despite what he’s seen, he still spends hours on his PlayStation playing Call of Duty – and these scenes are intercut with scenes director Danfung Dennis – a war photographer embedded with troops in Afghanistan – shoots of Harris’ fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. The effect is chilling. Harris needs help – and more help than he is currently receiving.
Hell and Back Again is a deliberately paced documentary, cutting back and forth between the hell of Afghanistan, and the hell Harris is going through in North Carolina. As I mentioned before, we’ve seen documentaries like this before – but that doesn’t dull the power of this one.