10 Years of War: “Hell and Back Again” review

10 Years of War: "Hell and Back Again" review

The 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan — 10/7/2001 — has a special place in my heart. My wife and I got married on the 6th, and were on our way to the airport on the 7th for our honeymoon when we learned that American fighter jets began bombing targets and killing people in Afghanistan. Needless to say, our flight was mostly empty.

I don’t think this has anything to do with my interest in the war documentaries that have come out of the U.S. since then, but I suppose Americans have done a fine job of pretending that our enduring overseas battles don’t exist, and this little anecdote does, in a very remote way, give me a personal connection to the war.

If you still need a refresher, photojournalist Danfung Dennis’ “Hell And Back Again” — opening today in New York — is the latest documentary to follow Western soldiers in Afghanistan, after last year’s Sundance entry “Restrepo”–whose co-director Tim Hetherington tragically died covering the war in Libya earlier this year–and Danish Cannes winner “Armadillo” (to be released on DVD Oct 18).

In my review of the film after its Sundance 2011 premiere, I wrote about the film’s “stunning cinematic visuals and you-are-there-immediacy,” as well as “the ambitious and intriguing structure of the movie, as it intercuts between on-the-ground combat footage on the frontlines and a wounded, shell-shocked 25-year-old Sergeant named Nathan Harris, who is trying to adjust to life back home in North Carolina.”

What’s most intriguing about Danfung’s film is this visual and aural strategy, which produces, as I wrote, “a highly subjective, even hallucinatory vision of one man’s lived contradiction, trapped between war and peace, the intense and the prosaic, the sounds of gunshots and screaming military commands bouncing inside his head (as heard on the soundtrack) verses his wife ordering fast food items at a drive-through window.”

I don’t think it always works, but it does make “Hell and Back Again” one of the few docs about the war to try to get at the subject from an impressionist and internal perspective, avoiding the facts of battle for its more palpable, visceral horrors.

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