There have been plenty of combat documentaries over the last 10 years, but photojournalist Danfung Dennis’ “Hell and Back Again” adopts an original conceit. Dennis follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, a gruff 25-year-old who was stationed in Afghanistan, during two seminal moments in his life. During an assault on a Taliban stronghold, Harris received a bullet wound in his rear that prematurely sent him home. Back in North Carolina with his wife, temporarily unable to walk and unsure of his military future, Harris drifts through his mundane life dealing with echoes of the past. Rather than letting his subject attempt to explain the trauma, Dennis shows it, repeatedly cutting between the two periods. The events speak for themselves.
The flashback has become a cliché in fictional cinema and when Dennis applies the same technique to reality, it initially comes across as presumptuous. No matter what his subject approved, the idea of combining footage from two periods of Harris’ life assumes an outside observer can get inside the ex-marine’s head. However, Dennis doesn’t overplay each transition and the bold concept eventually plays off.
In the field, negotiating with local Afghanis and barking orders in the heat of battle, Harris looks much older and assertive than the withered young adult who returns to North Carolina. Wheeling around town — overmedicated, depressed and in constant pain — he struggles to maintain the assertiveness of his former life. By cutting back to the rough masculine environment he dominated overseas, the film shows just how remote he feels from his current life.
The battlefield imagery grows increasingly unsettling, building toward the incident that sent Harris home. With its fine-tuned approach, “Hell and Back Again” is possibly the best war movie of the year (unless Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” pulls off a miracle), but it’s certainly the one that gets closest to the heat of the battle. Dennis’ revealing access to the Echo Company’s second platoon in Afghanistan places “Hell and Back Again” alongside a spate of recent documentaries that show the Afghanistan war in detail. These include “Restrepo,” “Severe Clear” and “Armadillo,” where the camera gets intimate with the combat but rarely shows the aggressors, leading to the appearance of a one-sided action movie in which the soldiers are really at war with themselves.
However, “Hell and Back Again” does show another side of the story. While not showing the enemy on the battlefield, it examines the damage to Harris’ psyche. Dennis uses several effective transitions between the now and then: The sight of Harris, on the hunt for new real estate and wandering through an empty house with his wife, abruptly shifts to a scene of Harris bursting through the door of an occupied Afghani home. On his couch, Harris lazily plays military shooting game “Call of Duty 4,” a moment that segues into scenes of his actual run-and-gun tactics in the field. Some juxtapositions are obvious, but Dennis doesn’t ruin them with extended or overly sentimental montages. The story moves swiftly forward.
While sympathetic to Harris’ plight, “Hell and Back Again” doesn’t avoid passing judgement. The former marine’s sense of heroism runs counter to the document of his platoon’s experience, which largely involves placating angry Afghani villagers or yelling at them when they withhold information. “We can’t resist against you or the Taliban,” one of them says. In an opening speech to the troops, the platoon leader announces that the soldiers must “force the Taliban to react to us rather than us reacting to them.” But that perspective fails to take into account the soldiers’ eventual reaction to themselves. “Hell and Back Again” dwells in that uncomfortable purgatory and finds no easy escape.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening today at Film Forum, “Hell and Back Again” should do well as a result of strong reviews and word-of-mouth that promises an apolitical documentary about the war in Afghanistan, which should also help it play in more specific markets around the country.