Another year, another war documentary. This time, filmmaker Danfung Dennis turns the eye of his camera on Nathan Harris, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, who leads his 2nd platoon further into insurgent strongholds in hopes of turning the tide of war in Afghanistan. The opening of the film features a firefight between U.S. forces and insurgents in the area where Lance Corporal Charles Sharp is killed in action, bringing the violence home for many viewers.
The film then announces, via title cards, that Sergeant Nathan Harris is severely wounded in combat, and he has returned home with a fractured pelvis and severely broken leg from a bullet that tore through his right side. This part of the film focuses on Harris’ return home, which he dreads more than another day of intense fighting in a foreign country. He has to contend with his constant physical therapy, limited mobility, heavy narcotic medications, and his own frustration with the rest of the world, including his wife, who has the best intentions, but somehow just ends up getting in his way.
The rest stays in Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers talk to village elders about the fighting that has been going on, and when they can come back to their homes, promising remuneration for crops lost, livestock killed, homes damaged, and children made ill because they’ve been living on the river for 5 nights. The worst part is, the spokesman for the Marines has to tell them what is happening, even though to them it makes no sense. He nods, understanding, that a lot of it won’t ever make any sense to peaceful farmers and village people. They simply want to live in their homes, but every day is filled with fear of the Taliban, and the U.S. military’s stray bullets, turning their village into a warzone.
It’s all justified as American progression in the region, but this half shows the true civilian cost of such fighting, and it becomes tough to defend when the progress is minimal over 10 years time. This isn’t the frenetic, heartbreaking, personal madness of Restrepo, but it puts a very human face on one side of the war, returning home, which is something that was not included in, or the point of, Restrepo. With that said, I think Hell and Back Again spent too much time there, and not the back again, which ultimately proves to be the most difficult part.
Harris has plans to return to his “Devil Dog” Marine days, but is disheartened when the doctor tells him it will be at least a year before he is fully mobile again, and even after that, Harris realizes he may never be fit to serve his country in the way he wants to. Citing a new law passed in recent years, the Marines could not force Harris to discontinue service, so instead he waits for the day he can possibly return. The end of the film juxtaposes Harris’ last days in Afghanistan, up to where he was injured, against his current days at home, where he struggles with pain management, physical therapy, and more frequent and prolonged episodes of mental duress. Harris is seen playing with his guns often, and even jokingly speaks of shooting himself, but he still longs for the day he might return to service, keeping him above water. I think a more interesting story will be to catch up with Harris in 10 years, not only to see how the war has progressed (or hasn’t) but to see the long term effects of such an injury, and to see if Harris was ever able to return to his dream job. A little too unfocused to be great, but still an excellent portrait of a Marine returning home after serving his country. A delicate, personal tale, this film is more likely to resonate with general audiences than an intense introspective look into war itself like Restrepo.