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Sometimes the power in the imagery of a film alone tells an ambiguous
tale that can be taken in many directions by a viewer. With the
plethora of documentaries on the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures
pushing you this way or that, it was incredibly refreshing to see one
that had its intentions somewhere else. Just present the war and its
impacts and let the chips fall where they may.
People made a big deal last year about Restrepo showing the intensity of moments in combat. That film, while great, doesn't even touch what young Danfung Dennis achieves here. The up close intimacy of the war moments took the most brazen courage to compile, but the shots are so beautifully constructed you truly can touch the daring and fear of those moments. I have only felt this before in narrative films like The Hurt Locker.
But the footage of the struggle this troubled soldier endures in his recovery from crippling injuries is equally compelling, frightening and heartbreaking. The sewing together of the two worlds presented has a power all its own.
I really believe this amazing young filmmaker, who really gives his all to the art in this film, deserves recognition. It won the documentary jury prize at Sundance. It now has been shortlisted by the Oscars for nomination consideration. These are so deserved.
I started off watching this documentary honestly because I was bored
one night and wanted to watch a documentary. Being fluent in Oscar
news, I decided I would be cultured and try to watch one of the
documentaries that was nominated. After some searching around I had
success in finding Hell and Back Again on Instant Watch. I was a little
skeptic at first, because I am not big on the whole Afghan War
documentaries. I hate how directors try to shove their ideas down my
throat about the war, but I found Hell and Back Again much different.
I was entranced by how many ways the movie was pulling the opinion of the war. It first shows an injured Marine named Nathan who is crippled because of the war. Yet, the moment I began think it was an anti-war movie, Nathan is talking about how he wants to get back onto the front lines! I had to pause the movie and try to wrap my head around this and decide whether this was pro or anti-war. Then it hit me like a sack of bricks, this movie is not pro or anti, it's an actual documentary. It's what a documentary is meant to be, a picture of real life and a gap for the viewer to decide what is right or wrong. I un-paused the movie and continued to watch.
The rest of movie was as gripping and emotion provoking as the first fifteen minutes. The director managed to flip between the footage of the war and the home life of Nathan. You could see Nathan back home still recovering physically from the war while at the same time the 'flashback' clips of the war lets the audience remember that there is more going on than we can see. As an audience you are spell bound. You see Nathan playing Modern Warfare 3 and you wonder what is going on in his head. You see Nathan playing with a gun and you move to the edge of your seats and begin to think that something very real could happen right here. The sheer tension created in this documentary is massive and is not lost on audiences.
One of my favorite scenes in this movie is when Nathan and his wife are looking at a new house and Nathan opens a door. At that moment the movie flicks over to clips from Nathan overseas as he and his fellow soldiers are kicking down doors and then the movie flicks back to Nathan back at the new house where he is looking like he is about to throw up. The raw emotion in that scene really got me going. Overall I was pleasantly surprised at this movie. As a documentary it filled the requirements of not only being entertaining and thought provoking, but also being available to the public. The story was interesting and the people in the story were very real to me. I am giving this movie a 10 out of 10 rating and highly recommend that if you can spare 80 minutes of your life for this movie, then watch it.
Many documentaries have some sort of bias, whether it be "pro" or
"anti" something or other. "To Hell and Back Again" is different in
that it will probably expose one's opinions without really having one
itself. The documentary follows the life of Sgt Nathan Harris and his
wife Ashley who live in a small town in North Carolina. Nathan is a
marine who, on his third tour of duty, is wounded in his leg and has to
go through extensive and painful therapy. Danfung Dennis cuts between
these images and those he took earlier of Nathan leading his platoon in
an intense tour in Afghanistan. The contrasts are incredible and help
emphasize everything that a marine goes through both abroad and at
home. Some images are severe, such as the deaths of an American LCP and
an Afghan soldier (both die off screen but you do see their bodies
The footage of Nathan at home, however, is what may bring out very different responses. He is obviously in extreme pain and has a harder life, yet is still very gung-ho and dreams of a full recovery and return to the front line (which got a gasp of disbelief by some in my theater). He also is very interested in firearms, and there are several shots of him and his pistols which he keeps near his bed and which he trains his wife how to use. She, meanwhile, must deal with the stress of caring for an injured husband while still performing her daily routine. Together, they see people in their community (who are quite positive), the marine doctors (who are hopeful for his recovery), and attend a very sad memorial for recently KIA soldiers at the base.
To anyone who is staunchly pro-military, the footage should be quite uplifting. Nathan is determined to recover (and he does noticeably improve though as of April 2011 is not fully healed) and the support of his community and especially his wife is heartwarming. Those who are not so gung-ho will probably be shocked by the footage. In the Q&A with the director and Ashley after the screening, one woman asked Ashley if she was scared for her life at all (a reference to Nathan's constant gun wielding, which she wasn't). Regardless of your leanings though this is an excellent documentary and should not be missed.
This is one of the most amazing documentaries I have ever seen.
The imagery is stunning, and the filming is pristine - especially considering the conditions - the camera and editing are high quality, and the shakiness is pretty subdued.
Most importantly, the stories are interesting and all too real.
The editing, which juxtaposes the return of the wounded Nathan Harris to America with the striking images of war is chilling. There is simply no other film which actually shows what it might be like to actually have PTSD.
The soldiers in this documentary are all too real, never joking with the camera while in combat, and coming close to death numerous times.
If you want proof, look closely, despite the presence of the camera, few soldiers ever look into it. This may have been a directorial call, but more than likely, it is because they are real soldiers, and one second looking at a camera - especially in such hostile territory - could cost you your life.
This movie is something special, and I doubt we will see anything like it again.
Honestly - props to this filmmaker Dennis - because he has some serious guts/grit.
Three generations of my family have served their country, with members
in almost every branch of the United States Armed Forces. While I
decided not to follow in the footsteps of aunts, uncles, cousins, or
even my parents, my baby brother did. The day after Katrina hit New
Orleans he enlisted in the Marine Corp. It was his unit that was filmed
for this documentary.
These men are not actors, they are not trying to "play it up" for the camera and any insinuations to the contrary are beyond offensive. These are trained soldiers who sign their lives away to the government for years at a time, some in hopes of earning school funds, and others a career. Their main worries are to do as commanded, and stay alive long enough to be able to reach their end goals. I watched this documentary with my eyes wide open, with the personal knowledge of how these events changed someone I love.
The beauty of Hell and Back Again is that it allows the rest of the world to see what soldiers and their families live with. We send our soldiers off knowing that at best they will be forever psychologically scarred and at worst we receive that dreaded knock on the door. When they do return we have to help them adjust back to their "normal" lives. So even though Sgt. Harris is the focus, this really is the story of every soldier who has been in a combat zone.
I hope that this film helps people understand that even though many have life altering physical injuries, the hardest part for most will be the life-long mental battle. Only through the genius of editing that follows the emotional path rather than the chronological, can we see those highs and lows with such intensity.
In the end I can only repeat what I told my brother after I saw this film. It allowed me to understand him better, not only as a soldier, but as a changed man. And even though he is still a pain in the rear, I am glad that he made it home alive, issues and all.
It's so shockingly sad to see the real poorly trained Marines in
combat. Just a bunch of YOYOs, screaming their heads off when they were
dropped behind the enemy line. All they did was just shooting blindly
to somewhere in front of them. They carried so many gears in their
backpack that made them very difficult to run in the field. What we
heard from the commanding officer was just a bunch big and hollow
words, trying so hard to encourage those young Marines to do a good
job, but once they were on the ground, heard bullets whizzed around
them, all they could do was screaming to each other, hiding from some
obstacles and kept shooting blindly to their general random front
directions. They have wasted so many bullets to shoot nothing. We were
used to be fooled by many movies telling us how cool, how brave and how
well-trained the US Marines, how tough they were, how they got even
tougher jobs after they did several tours. The overly glorified US
Marines stories were just like fictions, fantasies that could only
exist in daydreams.
This documentary if on the basis of exposing how terrible the US Marines during combat, it should got 10 stars, because it had vividly shown us how pathetic the Marines were in general. But if you take it from a different patriotic angle, this documentary sucked big time, it did nothing to glorify the US forces, especially the Marines. They have mindlessly wasted their lives wherever they were thrown into. All of them just looked so lame, so timid, so scared, all they could and would do is just shooting blindly to their unknown enemies. What a pathetic documentary since what it showed to us only made us shaking our heads constantly.
OK, the reviews on this say that this is some kind of a revolutionary
documentary, is pro/anti war neutral, and several others things. But
that really isn't the case.
First I will not say it is horrible. It is actually pretty good. My problem is more about what people say about it. The only real thing I see that is different is that expensive cameras were used. That is about it. Watching it you get the feel though, that this is not real and it is a recreation of what happened. That is due to the cameras, but also the dialog going on in the war scenes. Being a veteran, I can say that the dialog going on between soldiers feels a lot more forced. As if, in the fog of a fire fight the cameraman is prompting these guys to talk and it is not just filming things as they happened. I am not sure if that i what was going on, just that through experience, it is pretty suspect that that is what is going on. I don't think that is some kind of dirty trick or anything. It just is what it is.
I also take issue with those that say this is a war neutral film. If you look at the score on this site about this movie it rates high which in today's day and age doesn't happen unless it skews to a "evil empire of the U.S.A." movie. The story of Harris at home also shows mostly the effects of PTSD, and has a bit of feel of a film that says,"Look at the horrible gun culture of the U.S." I think that feeling is veiled in a way that some may be able to say is neutral.
Nobody likes war. Especially those that fight it. The problem is there are people all over the world that think there is never a reason to ever go to war and want us to completely stay away from war. It is a noble thought and gesture, but it has no basis in reality. Neville Chamberlain tried that in the 1930's and it didn't turn out well. The reason that peace at all costs doesn't work because there are other people out there that don't think that way. I think the most recent example is our idiot President Obama facing Mitt Romney in a debate before the 2012 election. Mitt Romney said that Russia was a geo-political enemy of the U.S. Obama's snarky comment was that the 80's are calling and want their president back. There was laughter and the folks at Obama's propaganda network (MSNBC) laughed and made fun of the thought that Russia was in anyway an enemy. Well, they weren't laughing when Russia annexed the Crimea.... Obama forgot that Putin does not think in the "leave everything and one alone fallacy...
PTSD is a tough thing. This movie touches on it, but a lot of what I saw was just a guy who was having trouble coming home from being a big, strong, tough, Member of the military and trying to adjust to being wounded, and to a degree helpless. I think that has more to do with the depression and everything else. That is a huge thing even without PTSD. PTSD has been around since the beginning of human existence, not something just discovered and the hard part about it is that it effects everyone differently and there are no real way to predict how it will effect anyone. Some have an extremely difficult time with it some do not.
All in all, it is not a horrible film, but I really don't think it was a huge, awesome film that should be dressed in a bunch of awards. Many are comparing it to "Restrepo" but if I were to compare the two I would say that "Restrepo" is a far better documentary than this one.Part of that is this movie has no real story, and it is much more disjointed than the other one. Still decent though.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The documentary starts off with a thought provoking contrast. We land
in the middle of a deadly Afghan war scene, only to see the marines'
family reunion in America shortly after. This contrast suggests the
frightful incompatibility of these scenes, and hints at the question of
how the marines cope with this.
During the story of Nathan back home, our point of view shifts from time to time to the Afghan war scene. These suggest the flashbacks that Nathan experiences.
Ironic scenes from Nathan playing Call of Duty confront the viewer with the barbarity it is of reducing war to an enjoyable video game.
The strongest moment in the film features one of Obama's speeches touching on the Afghan war. The film suggests the ridiculousness, emptiness and idiocy of Obama's idealized speeches about war, and subtly subverts it when a wounded and indifferent Nathan comments: "Well, Afgan people aren't watching." This film suggests that even physically unharmed marines come home profoundly wounded, be it emotional. Nathan's neurotic and unpredictable behaviour makes us question what injury cuts deeper, the physical or the emotional.
I want to start off by saying if you don't have any type of military
service, I personally don't think you have a right to leave a review of
As an OEF veteran, this documentary was really intense and emotional to watch, but only because it brought me back to that country. My tour wasn't anything close to as rough as his, but I know what it's like on some level and I can relate in a general sense. It really shows you how the war in Afghanistan is with no media twists. It shows how we are truly doing our best to help the people of Afghanistan, and also shows his life after the deployment as well. Many people think a soldiers experience with war ends the moment he returns home. This is stuff that stays with you for life, and I really like how they show you both during and after.
This is how it is, so if you want to see what the war in Afghanistan is like without any biased media distorting the information, watch this.
Hell and Back Again is a war film that should be shown to teenagers
rather than something like Battle: Los Angeles. This is a true account
of the war in Afghanistan, showing real-life footage of the war taken
from the director himself.
We follow around Nathan Harris, a twenty-year old Marine sergeant, who has returned from his six month tour in Afghanistan in a wheelchair. Shortly before the end of his deployment, he is shot by a sniper, with the bullet going through his right hip, punctured his hip socket, before finally collapsing to break his leg. It's a messy scenario, and Harris will need a full year of rehab before returning to Afghanistan.
In the meantime, Harris is trying to adjust to civilian life, while coping with an injury, and is being cared for by his high school sweetheart Ashley. He always seems to be on some sort of medication, and is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. During this time, the film is intercut with combat footage, showing Harris leading his men, strategizing, sometimes stressing, and shooting. It's effective and serves purpose because it real and not fictionalized or dramatized for theatrical purposes.
Some sequences, arguably some of the best, show the Marines talking to the Afghanistan civilians who are disgusted by the Marines invading their area, complicating farming and disrupting their family life. They give the Afghanistan people some humanity and distinction rather than we Americans declaring them "stupid terrorists." One of the strongest things a documentary can do is obviously inform, and Hell and Back Again shows us a world we don't like to think about.
Although the film is poignant, relative, and undeniably interesting, at some points it feels a bit too distended from its actual topic. It's trying to showcase the struggle and inevitably complex adaptation from one life to another, yet it seems to be too sidetracked by showing a number of from the Afghanistan War. And sometimes, the results feels a tad too cinematic by showing a stressed out, barely functional Nathan with his head in his hands, while audio from combat is playing over the scene. It's things like that in which a documentary tries to be too much like a fictional film, by splicing up its own narrative and thoughts in the process.
It still doesn't derail what an incredibly moving film Hell and Back Again is. I recently discussed with a friend about the abundance of media coverage returning soldiers get. I find it to be extremely necessary to show our troops coming home, and that we should never forget the fact that freedom is a lot of things, but not free. I was also told by my grandmother that when soldiers used to come home, they came home and that was it. The Vietnam Vets didn't even get a look from bystanders in the same directions. We have become graphic nationalists in just a few decades and here is a beautifully crafted documentary showing the hardships soldiers face when the battle comes to an end and is transported overseas in your own living room. It seems one doesn't go back to Hell, but rather remains in it.
Starring: Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris and Ashley Harris. Directed by: Danfung Dennis.
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