As events appear to have warranted, the shift in cinematic focus in Hollywood's look at the War on Terror from the Iraq to Afghanistan theatres has presented their own set of unique shared circumstances, particularly when one is trying to promote peace and democracy despite being an occupying force in a country. However, the shared experience of engaging in battle and coming home and attempting to reconcile the thoughts and feelings of that to a newfound life at home remains a difficult process for soldiers in 2011, and Hell and Back Again attempts to illustrate this as best as possible.
The film chronicles the time of Sergeant Nathan Harris, squad leader in Echo Company, 2nd of the 8th Marines. Harris' squad was dropped into a part of southern Afghanistan known for its Taliban grip, and soon the company found themselves cut off and in the middle of a firefight which eventually claimed the lives of more than a dozen Marines in the company (along with an Afghan translator). Harris himself was hit in the hip by a machine gun round and almost bled to death, but held on and was mended and eventually came home. Danfung Dennis, a photojournalist who was embedded with the squad, directs this film.
Using a mix of Harris' time stateside from the injury and the days and weeks in country before it, the viewer gets to witness the sometimes tense and often times frustrating interactions with the Afghanis. And to be honest, it is easy to see why the relations would be tense. The troops are coming into villages, disrupting the lives of families, ruining homes and land, and when the natives complain about it, they are offered money as a means of assuagement. What are they going to do with the money? Tossing a few thousand dollars at a family isn't going to make their lives markedly better. It may sound like oversimplification, but America's communications with the Afghani citizens borders on that scene in The Godfather when Sonny smashes the reporter's camera and tosses him dollars while still sneering at him. It does not appear that it is going to accomplish anything. And with the Taliban moving in and out of these villages rather adeptly, this does not help matters. Dennis conveys the increasing suspense nicely, making a slow build to the firefight.
We do see some of those impacts in the film cross over to his home life (starting with a montage of shots early in the film, one of which appears to include him putting a pistol in his mouth). Harris becomes stressful even when the issue is several voices in a car ordering drive-through from a fast food place. He attempts to overcome addictions to various painkillers for the injuries. He attends funerals for his troops and expresses remorse at being wounded, as if he "left" them. He takes the thanks for his service in stride, but it is easy to see the thoughts on the battles still plague him months after leaving Afghanistan.
That said, for all of the searing portraits Dennis illustrates with his footage and as much as the film brings to the table, I think there are some that are either missing or perhaps required more depth to them. An internet search finds that Harris was from a small North Carolina town of just under 3,000 and was a wrestling champion in high school who married his high school sweetheart. He also served two prior tours in combat before being wounded on his third. Barely in his 20s, Harris has already lived a full life and it is clear that there is still some adjustment to a calmer life for him at home (to say nothing for his wife Ashley). There is no denying the impact of war on a young man's life, but I think giving the viewer a better idea of Harris' origins might appreciate the impact all the more.
It is a small qualm, because for all of the dramatic movies in the past that have shown the impact of war both in combat and in a household, Hell and Back Again manages this effectively and in a no-frills manner, letting Harris convey the action without the need for editorializing. In a crowded group of war films, this one can certainly stake ground as being one of the best out there.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen using the AVC codec, Hell and Back Again is mainly a handheld affair with some occasional alternative sources (such as news footage and video game action thrown in), but everything is well detailed and reproduces life in battle and at home as accurately as one could expect. Colors look natural and are not saturated in any way, shadow delineation is good and black levels are replicated with no complaints. No noticeable DNR was spotted, but film grain is evident during many sequences. All in all the disc looks excellent.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track may not be full of bombast compared to box office titans in the fictional war film genre, but the action going on the soundstage reinforces the notion of less being more in this instance. However, when things get ratcheted up, the soundtrack is more than capable. Bullet hits are clean and abundant through all channels, and the low-end from mortars reaching their targets. On the softer side, dialogue is strong and consistent, requiring little adjustment at all, and the overall listening experience runs as well with the big boys.
The bonus material starts with a straightforward yet slightly hollow commentary from Dennis and Editor Fiona Otway. It starts out with Dennis discussing his history as a photojournalist, but the majority of the track seems to have Otway interviewed Dennis to recall a particular scene or moment, and Dennis chimes in on his out in some areas with shot recollection or intent. And the track includes the two watching the film, a lot and almost from the start. When the track gets going, it is decent, the problem is those moments are fleeting. Next is "Technical Gear Demo" (5:46), where Dennis talks about the equipment he used to capture the scenes both at home and abroad. Three deleted scenes (14:18) show us how families and Marine bases appear to be dealing with the toll of war on a soldier, and a public service announcement for Blue Star Families (:33) is a good accompaniment. A song that Willie Nelson recorded for the film bearing the same name is included as a music video (3:14). The two-disc includes a standard definition version of the film, where the screen grabs are taken from.
Hell and Back Again is the beneficiary of good timing, with its recent release to video along with a Oscar nomination for Best Documentary behind it. Technically it is much better than expected, although the bonus material is a disappointment. Regardless, it is an engrossing film that is a must-watch.