Pick of the week: “Hell and Back Again” shows the true cost of war

Pick of the week: A gung-ho Marine comes home a wreck in the lyrical, haunting documentary "Hell and Back Again"

Topics: Our Picks: Movies, Afghanistan, Iraq, Documentaries, Restrepo,

Pick of the week: "Hell and Back Again" shows the true cost of war

When Sgt. Nathan Harris’ Marine company was sent behind Taliban lines in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009, as part of a major assault meant to extend the Afghan government’s control deep into rebel territory, their commanding officer delivered an inspiring speech, telling his men that Echo Company would change history, and that “the world will notice what you do here.” It didn’t. Back in the Wal-Mart in suburban North Carolina, where Harris sometimes shows total strangers the gruesome scar that runs from his right buttock all the way to his ankle, it seems more like the world doesn’t really want to know much about what happens in Afghanistan, where a decade of war has produced no clear results, at prodigious and debilitating cost.

I don’t think photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Danfung Dennis includes that officer’s speech in his compassionate and unsettling documentary “Hell and Back Again” (winner of a Grand Jury Prize and a cinematography prize at Sundance) for some heavy-handed ironic effect, or to score political points. This isn’t that kind of movie. There have been several powerful war documentaries about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (I’d put Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s “Restrepo” and Janus Metz’s “Armadillo” at the top of the list), but perhaps none with the intimate, human, tragic and sympathetic impact of “Hell and Back Again.”

Dennis was embedded with Harris’ company during some absolutely terrifying firefights, and you definitely see the war from a grunt’s-eye view. On Dennis’ first day, a corporal in Echo Company is fatally injured a few yards away from him, and in a later scene, an Afghan soldier’s weeping comrades retrieve his body from the battlefield, literally in pieces. But this film is only partly about the violence, chaos and trauma of war. Dennis later followed Nathan Harris back home, and recorded a remarkable portrait of an American marriage, and of how the ripple effects of warfare carry over into civilian life.



Depending on how you look at it, Nathan Harris was either lucky or unlucky. A combat-hardened, gung-ho Marine veteran who’d served several tours of duty in the Gulf region, Harris understood the risks. He came home alive and with all his limbs after getting shot up in a Taliban ambush, about two weeks before the end of his scheduled deployment. After several operations, many bottles of painkillers and a year or more of rehabilitation, it’s possible his shattered hip and leg will heal well enough to let him walk normally. But the guy we see back in North Carolina is a total mess: Moody and angry, frequently nauseated from pain and heavy doses of narcotics, waving loaded handguns around the house, possibly suffering from paranoid delusions. He says he finds an overcrowded parking lot at the mall more stressful than Afghanistan, where “everything is clear.”

In his more lucid and less threatening moments, Harris makes a fascinating protagonist, an intelligent, funny, slyly handsome fellow without much formal education who has learned what he knows about human beings and the world from the discipline and violence of warfare. He joined the Marines at 18, he says, because he “wanted to kill people,” and we get the impression he’s done his share of that. Clearly he now feels more misgivings about that, although he makes a forceful argument — lying on the sofa, with his injured leg in a therapy device — in favor of the war in Afghanistan. If it isn’t an argument I happen to agree with, you can’t claim that Harris hasn’t thought about it, or is just a brainwashed robot following orders.

Dennis’ other central character, at least on the home front, is Harris’ wife Ashley, a petite young woman with a two-tone blonde dye job who seems alternately baffled and terrified by this man she barely recognizes. If Ashley’s getting any kind of counseling or formal support, we don’t see it in the movie; the title, in fact, comes from a remark she makes during a conversation with a pharmacist at Walgreen’s while she’s refilling Nathan’s many prescriptions. Sometimes she looks at him and his eyes look soulless, he seems to contain nothing but rage, she tells the woman. They’ve been through hell and back, but they still love each other.

“Hell and Back Again” ingeniously intercuts scenes from the Afghan combat zone and scenes from the Harrises’ new life in North Carolina, and once again I don’t think Dennis is making some obvious point about the difference in material privilege or living conditions. Those factors are part of the story, certainly, but when we move from the walls of a Walgreen’s outside Winston-Salem to the walls of a mud compound outside Mosul, I think he’s emphasizing that those places are more closely connected than we think. Nathan Harris is quite right, in a way, to view the shopping mall as a war zone, even if it doesn’t look like one to those of us with less experience. This is a lyrical and humane film in the finest documentary tradition, which honors its subjects by telling their story with great dignity and painful clarity and leaving judgment to history.

“Hell and Back Again” is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens Oct. 14 in Los Angeles; Oct. 21 in San Francisco; Oct. 28 in Dallas; Nov. 4 in Philadelphia and San Diego; and Nov. 18 in Denver, Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Washington, D.C., with more cities and home-video release to follow.

 

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>