REVIEW: Hell and Back Again

5 04 2012

War is hell.  Then the soldier comes home and fights a war of readjustment, making home a separate kind of hell thanks to the transitive property.  “Hell and Back Again” chronicles both battlegrounds for an American soldier, Sergeant Nathan Harris, serving in Afghanistan.  It has some poignant moments, particularly a large funeral for several fallen soldiers, but Danfung Dennis’ documentary overall dwells in the been there, done that territory for the majority of its 90 minute runtime.

And that’s a real shame because our soldiers deserve better than a humdrum movie that does not fully communicate just how much bravery it requires to serve in Afghanistan and just how much perseverance is required to live afterwards.  Harris has it particularly rough, suffering a life-threatening injury from a Taliban bullet in the leg.  He has his wife, Ashley, back at home in North Carolina to help sustain him emotionally through the physical therapy, but everything still takes a humongous and taxing toll.  It’s painful, sure, but dread should be creeping up our spine watching Harris.  The empathy Dennis manages to generate is all too easily shrugged off.

“Hell and Back Again” is a skilled work, though, interlacing Harris’ recovery with battle scenes of the same visceral intensity as “Restrepo.”  At times, they don’t always mesh quite as seamlessly as Dennis intended, but war isn’t neat.  It’s messy; it’s dirty; it’s the ultimate gauntlet.  While it’s nice to observe that personal hell, documentaries should really be putting us in hell alongside him, ultimately emerging thankful for his sacrifice and grateful for our own freedoms.  For whatever reason, Dennis’ film is too removed to really sear or stir.  C+