SGT Nathan Harris is 25 years old, but he’s already seen too much. After commanding his squad through the chaos of battle-torn Afghanistan, the injured marine is acclimating to post-war life in North Carolina. Navigating the entryway of Wal-Mart via electric scooter, Harris abruptly puts on the brakes. Loopy from Oxycontin and morphine, the young veteran is still lucid enough to shoot the shit with a sweet, motherly greeter.
In a startlingly matter-of-fact manner, he pulls his pants down over a right flank, exposing the fresh wounds ravaging his leg. While fighting downrange, describes Harris, a machine gun bullet ripped through his hip, “tumbled down my leg,” and exited at the knee.
“Can I hug you?” the elderly woman asks, visibly overwhelmed. Harris nods, and she leans over his scooter, arms cradling the wounded warrior in an awkward embrace. Whether Harris’ candor is the product of war-inflicted impulsivity or a natural gregariousness, it’s an endearing trait from a man who’s already absorbed a lifetime’s worth of pain.
“Hell and Back Again” is Harris’ story. Embedded with his platoon in Southern Afghanistan during the summer of 2009, director Danfung Dennis wants nothing more than to immerse his viewers directly into the lives of a soldier. Yes, lives – plural. Once a warrior enters the field, he’s transformed into a hyper-adrenalized leader, mind and body negotiating fight-or-flight panic and pragmatic planning. The other life comes later, when he returns to what’s supposed to be home – but seems alien as a lunar landscape.
“Hell and Back Again” toggles back and forth between Harris’ combat experience and his latter transition into civilian life. The former is a blur of controlled chaos, accented by bullets flying from nowhere, fired by ghosts that remain unseen throughout the duration of the film. Comrades are cut down. The crack of machine gun fire is omnipresent.
There are also tense, tentative encounters with those caught in the crossfire between Taliban insurgents and American troops. One Marine insists to an Afghan farmer that he’s there to help the country, “from the bottom of my heart.” The farmer offers a different perspective, explaining that the conflict’s resultant upheaval has left him unable to pull tractors out of garages to plow fields, or to summon doctors for sick children.
Terrifying, yes. Confusing? Certainly. But Harris is up for the challenge. Barking orders to battle buddies and bounding forward wearing weighty weapons and Kevlar, the officer is an efficient conductor in this frenzied symphony of blasts, sand, and profanity.
After Harris’ return home, the shooting stops. But frustration escalates, as he weathers a painful, mundane slog through numbing medication, agonizing physical therapy, and vivid flashbacks. Unlike “Restrepo,” which also followed a filmmaker embedded in the Afghan trenches alongside American G.I.’s, “Hell and Back Again” doesn’t let us off easy with expository talking heads. We’re expected to take the often dull, occasionally joyful, and sometimes terrifying walk directly alongside Harris and Ashley, his blonde, petite, quietly empathic wife.
“Hell and Back Again” tells is like it is. This isn’t Brian De Palma, and you won’t find any artsy tracking shots or look-at-me set pieces. Dennis does, however, seamlessly edit the war segments and home-front footage to suggest PTSD, that nasty, uncontrollable mental trick that combat plays on soldiers’ psyches. Tentatively inspecting a prospective new home, for example, Harris suddenly flashes back to a kinetic, kick-down-the-doors village raid. Tour of Duty gaming prompts memories of an explosively real battle-zone firefight.
Dennis also employs subtle audio effects, pounding a pain clinic with waves of garbled sounds and fading conversations, and enhancing an already-vivid sense of Harris’ pill-induced grogginess and shattered concentration. Tinny voices radiating from a drive-through intercom are amplified into an unbearable bee’s nest of intrusive noise. We sense that Harris’ mind now functions much like a car radio in perpetual “search” mode, registering splintered bursts of white noise and human banter in frustratingly random patterns.
When “Hell and Back Again” wraps up, we’re left in an anxious, worrisome state. It’s clear that Harris is not getting better. It’s clear that he’s not physically capable of getting back into the fight. He takes too many meds and waves his gun around too often (at one point, meticulously instructing us on the best way to prop a pistol beneath a bed mattress for easy nighttime access). Harris does, however, have a resilient, dedicated wife. Ashley hasn’t gone through her husband’s unforgiving plight first-hand, but she knows exactly when to hold his hand in an offer of unconditional reassurance.
Ultimately, the message of “Hell and Back” is clear. For many soldiers, life on the battlefield carries with it a crucial sense of clarity and mission. It seems to make more sense than a routine spent navigating crowded parking lots, re-filling medication prescriptions, and attending agonizing eulogies to fallen friends.
Most of us will never know the physical and psychological fallout that soldiers often endure. But “Hell and Back” gives us a small sliver of understanding. When Harris expresses a yearning to return to Afghanistan, “Where it’s simple,” we’re left with a pretty good sense of what he means.