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Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Though structurally interesting, Danfung Dennis' Oscar-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again suffers from a number of small, frustrating problems that collectively hinder it beyond the point of recommendation. Most of these problems are personal ones to me, so this, more than anything I've written in a while, should be taken with a grain of salt. From an objective standpoint, Hell and Back Again is a fine film (though it's still imperfect). But there's a reason I've stopped "reviewing" (i.e. giving star ratings to) documentaries, and it's because it's hard to remove bias from non-fiction. So with that out of the way, I'll get into my thoughts on Hell and Back Again.

The film follows a dual chronology. The first begins in Afghanistan circa 2008, one of the deadliest times of the war. When Sgt. Nathan Harris is shot in the hip, he goes home with a metal pole holding his broken leg together. So his men keep fighting the Taliban (and trying to keep the peace with the locals) while he begins a different sort of fight. Not only is he physically torn apart, but he also struggles with adapting to everyday life again. Going to Wal-Mart is a bigger chore for Harris than any mission on the front. He's just a military man through and through, and life at home seems to slowly drive him mad.

We're given as much time with the soldiers still in Afghanistan as we are with Harris, which is both a positive and a negative for the film. On the one hand, we spend less time with Harris (more on that later). Unfortunately, the connective tissue is thin, and character identification is almost non-existent. If the film stayed in Afghanistan for its entirety (a la Restrepo), it could have been exceptional. Some scenes in there (like when the members of an Afghan village meet with a military leader to talk about their gripes) are fascinating. It's the Harris stuff that brings the film down.

Now, I get why Dennis approached the material in this way. Putting a deeply personal spin on war isn't necessarily new, but it has proven to work, and it should have here. Why it didn't work for me is because I had no way whatsoever of connecting with Harris. I blame this on his attitude and set of beliefs. There are a number of scenes in which he obsesses over his handgun—fine. Military men operate weapons every day and are trained to kill. I don't agree with this philosophy, but it's probably an inescapable one within that culture. What disturbed me was a scene like the one during which he mimics a Russian roulette game with a loaded gun—putting a bullet in the barrel, spinning it around, and telling his wife she'd be dead if they were playing for real. Oh, but it's just for show. It's not like he's pointing a loaded gun at her, right? WRONG. I don't care who you are, but that's completely unacceptable to me, and couple that with the scene in which he loses his temper with her while driving and the one during which she begins crying in a pharmacy and says she doesn't know who he is anymore, and I felt genuinely frightened for her safety. Not only that, but I was taken completely out of the film. Call me soft, overly sensitive, whatever you want. I just think behavior like that is deplorable, no matter what you've been through, and I lost any sympathy I had for Harris by the end of the film.

So is Hell and Back worth a watch? Well, if it wins Best Documentary (which it certainly could), you might feel obligated. I know that feeling. But it's not one I'm recommending. Watch If a Tree Falls for a more cohesive and less disturbing look at someone with a somewhat crazy viewpoint on an issue. Or watch Dennis' film and form your own opinion. Either way, you'll hopefully be watching more documentaries, which (even if I don't like your choice) is an objectively good thing.

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