The Oscar-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again is an intimate portrait of one American soldier's attempt to transition back to regular life after a harrowing deployment in which he was horribly injured. Unfortunately, despite its strengths, Hell and Back Again does not stand out in any way or form.
Hell and Back Again follows the life of 25-year old Sergeant Nathan Harris, who in 2009 was stationed in southern Afghanistan. Filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded with Harris' Echo Company during an assault on a Taliban stronghold, and decided to shift his focus from a portrayal of war on the front lines to the much more personal battle that soldiers face when they return to the adrenaline-less normalcy of everyday life, full of Walmarts and video games, wives and family.
The documentary dives deeper into the postwar life of a soldier than I've ever seen before and paints a vivid picture of a man suffering both physically and mentally. Harris is incredibly open about his feelings and the anguish he suffers every day, partially crippled and in agonizing pain from a bullet that tore through his hip and down into his leg. He's disconnected from the world around him, unable to operate in the same capacity as he used to. As his loving wife Ashley says, when she looks into his eyes she sees a different man.
The film is most poignant when Harris and Ashley interact together. It is gut wrenching to watch at times. As Harris talks openly about how hard it is back at home, you can only help but wonder what Ashley is thinking. His problems become painfully clear when he starts keeping a gun by their bed and forces her to learn how to use it in case she ever needs to defend herself. He's obsessed, paranoid. There are times when it looks like Ashley is on the verge of breaking down, of throwing up her arms and saying enough is enough. It's hard on Harris, and it's hard on those around him, too.
Few war movies show this side of war.
And frankly, after nearly a decade of modern warfare, it's amazing that more documentaries haven't tackled such a subject.
Still, as good as Hell and Back Again is, it didn't blow me away. It's me, not the movie. I like my documentaries explosive, to focus on a subject few people know about and that's wildly strange or disturbing in some way or another. Hell and Back Again is about normal people facing normal life, albeit with extenuating circumstances. Furthermore, I know very few people in the armed services, and none who have faced real combat. It's hard for me to relate, to get more out of this film, where I imagine that people who have friends, family members or significant others who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder would appreciate it much more.
Hell and Back Again is a good documentary that focuses on a particular side of war that is rarely examined in detail, but there are other, better, more compelling documentaries to see. Would I have given it an Oscar nomination? No. Am I surprised that it was nominated? No.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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