Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hell and Back Again

One of the Oscar-nominated documentaries, Danfung Dennis' "Hell and Back Again" shows us the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, first while Dennis was embedded with Harris' unit battling the Taliban and later when Harris, badly injured from his hip down his leg, returns to life in North Carolina. (Dennis several times conveys Harris' difficulty living in the present by overlapping the audio as he segues between events in Afghanistan and back home.)

Among all forms of human activity, war may be the most overserved by the movies. It's a rare war film that distinguishes itself by offering something new. Dennis' doc manages to do so by showing us how our wars in the Middle East are waged both on the battlefield and off. Through the specific (Harris) we get what feels like a real sense of the general.

Dennis presents Harris not as a hero but as very much an average soldier: motivated not so much by patriotism, though he has that, as by a moral compass that compels him to want to eliminate evildoers. Glib bromides about the meaninglessness of war pale beside Harris' attempt to give voice to the reasons he fights, his description of the hopelessness of Afghans' lives under Taliban rule and the genuine compassion and empathy he and his comrades feel toward them.

The combat footage is bound to be of less interest to me than the human-interest side of the story, which comes as Harris attempts to readjust to his new life as a still-young man, with physical problems that will to some extent never leave him, possessing skills and qualities that are real and valuable but very hard to transfer. Nevertheless, the war footage does convey as well as any fictional war film the immediacy of physical danger and the randomness of injury and death.

But it's in the time we spend with Harris and his loving, deeply giving wife Angela that we get a new insight into and appreciation of the American soldier. Harris rides his temporary wheelchair into a Wal-Mart and tells his story to the elderly greeter, who asks if she can hug him. He wonders whether the new Call of Duty game is worth spending some of their limited money. He ponders what the future holds and hopes he may heal well enough for it to include another tour.

No easy heroes or villains here - and no pat answers.

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