Thursday, September 29, 2011

To Hell and Back Again

X-posted from caribou (24 Sept 2011)


Last night I had the chance to see a screening of To Hell and Back Again here at Princeton, thanks to React to Film and Prof. Meredith Martin.

This documentary tells the story of Sergeant Nathan Harris, a Marine squad leader who gets wounded in an ambush in Afghanistan. Using footage from Afghanistan and after, director Danfung Dennis weaves an affecting, complex story about the effects and experience of war.

The film presents us with Nathan Harris's recovery and adjustment to life back in North Carolina, with his wife Ashley, after his redeployment from Afghanistan. Dennis interleaves the Afghanistan footage, as if these scenes were flashbacks, at once heightening the contrast between "over here" and "over there," and strengthening the connections between the two places, as they're simultaneously inhabited by Nathan Harris. Drawing these connections, between war and peace, between America and its wars, is the most important thing the film does. Showing how they live in Nathan Harris, and how he lives in them, is the most powerful.

To Hell and Back Again lacks the production values and range of Restrepo, even if it more than makes up for that lack by its intimate focus on Harris, but it does share two important things with that film, one good and one bad.  Like Restrepo, it gives us a close, intense view, under fire. Also like Restrepo, we get too many scenes focusing on the miscommunication and misunderstanding endemic between Americans and Afghanis. Let me be clear: I'm not opposed to showing such scenes. I was glad to see these scenes in both movies, and understand their purpose, and doubt not the least that they reflect on-the-ground realities.

At the same time, both films hammer the point beyond observation: it's not enough to illustrate the miscommunication, they need to make sure you GET IT. The main effect of this political tendentiousness, beyond making the films a bit tedious in spots, is taking up time that could have been used for other things. More complexity gets left out in favor of beating home a message, which is too bad. This is a minor complaint, however.

On the whole, in fact, while Restrepo may have "better" combat footage, To Hell and Back again is a better documentary and a better movie. It needs to be seen. (I have qualms about combat footage in general, and the question of who has a right to see what, but that's too complicated a subject to go into here and now.)

To Hell and Back Again opens in New York and LA on October 5. See it.

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