Hell and Back Again

Movies, Documentary
4 out of 5 stars
Hell and Back Again

Plenty of documentaries have been termed fly-on-the-wall; Danfung Dennis's terrific nonfiction feature about U.S. Marines Echo Company sergeant Nathan Harris takes that step-back-and-observe ethos to spectacularly agile extremes. The director's imagery (he shot the movie himself) is ceaselessly mobile, floating with hypnotic grandeur through both of the film's interwoven sections: a 2009 mission where the Marine and his fellow soldiers seek out Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, and the more recent home front where Harris recovers from a crippling gunshot wound that's doomed him to a less quick-triggered existence.

There's a hint of Kubrick in the vrit cinematography, especially in the way the camera sweeps through the Afghani landscape whenever gunfire erupts (practically a DIY Paths of Glory) or how a Walmart is made to look like a glinting, Shining-like labyrinth. The visuals are consistently bleak, but the film's engagement with Harris and the often-harsh world around him is clear-eyed and empathetic. Save for a cringingly wet-eyed song at the end credits, any glib partisan sympathies are eschewed for an illuminating on-the-ground approach: Several scenes involving U.S. soldiers conversing with local village elders speak volumes about the miscommunications that undermine both sides' good intentions. And watching the formerly spry Harris struggle to maintain a normal life (he's frequently glassy-eyed and jacked on painkillers) emphasizes the underappreciated sacrifices our men and women in uniform make in the name of vaguely defined ideals.

Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich

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Release details

Release date:
Monday August 22 2011
88 mins

Cast and crew

Dennis Danfung
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