Movie Review

Hell and Back Again

Hell and Back Again Movie Poster

US Release Date: 11-11-2011

Directed by: Danfung Dennis


  • Nathan Harris
  • Himself
Reviewed on: January 27th, 2012
Nathan and Ashley Harris experience hell and back again.

Nathan and Ashley Harris experience hell and back again.

This year's Afghanistan war documentary nominated for an Academy Award is Hell and Back Again.  As with last year's Restrepo, we see plenty of American soldiers running, shouting and shooting.  In both films we see the frustration of American soldiers dealing with the locals, who claim to not want the Taliban around but also are not willing to help the Americans find them. 

Another aspect I found similar to Restrepo is that neither film ever shows the enemy.  Is this some bullshit rule that the documentary film maker cannot break, or were these staged scenes?  I will guess the former as a couple of scenes show a soldier seriously wounded.

Hell and Back Again follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris after he arrives home wounded.  He and his wife Ashley live in a small town in North Carolina. Nathan was on his third tour of duty.  We see Nathan go through painful physical therapy, plenty of medications and scenes that will have you questioning his mental stability.

The movie cuts between Nathan trying to adjust to home life with his messed up leg, and scenes of Nathan's platoon in Afghanistan. The contrasts are interesting.  How does a man go from leading men into danger, to needing his wife to drive him around as well as help him dress.   One scene has Nathan playing Call of Duty video game in the comfort of his home and then the film switches to the real thing. 

Most of the scenes filmed in Afghanistan were nearly repeats of Restrepo.  The parts of Nathan at home are far more fascinating.  Nathan, who takes all kinds of meds, gets upset over simple things, such as not being able to find a parking spot at Walmart.  He sometimes seems happy and sometimes seems crazy.  He owns a couple of hand guns and seems to constantly handle them.  For a soldier, holding a gun is routine, but for an audience it seems almost psychotic.

The only time Nathan seems at all comfortable and lucid is when he tells someone about his wound.  Whether it is a realtor showing them a house or a Walmart greeter, Nathan seems very eager to pull the side of his pants down his hip to show the horrendous gash caused by a bullet that Nathan proudly states nearly took off half of his butt.

Being a soldier was and is what Nathan wants to be.  Because of some rule, the military cannot let him go, but obviously he will never be a foot soldier again.  At one point Nathan goes to a memorial service for some fallen soldiers.  Other soldiers are there and he seems to become another person talking to them, almost bragging and joking about his handicap.  This is the Nathan, that Nathan misses being.  The most heart wrenching moment comes at the service when the Marine Chaplain has a hard time finishing the eulogy as he keeps breaking down in tears.  Everyman in that room understands how he feels.

Unless we have have been to war and back, we will never fully understand what it is like to go to such extremely different situations.  Is this a new problem?  Did the soldiers of World War II not have the same issues?  Perhaps a two week ride home on a transport ship helped them slowly process it all better than a days worth of air plane rides.  Imagine that yesterday you saw a buddy get shot on the battlefield and tomorrow you will be home playing Call of Duty on your X-Box.   Surreal!   

Related Review