Hell and Back Again
Documentary by Danfung Dennis
Where “Restrepo” captured the terror of being on the frontlines in Afghanistan, “Hell and Back Again” offers a close-up look at what happens to those frontline soldiers when they’re back stateside. In this visually crisp documentary, Danfung Dennis renders PTSD so keenly, and in such a refreshing way, that you may get psychosomatic headaches just from watching.
The subject of the film is Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, a 25-year-old who was stationed in Afghanistan before being seriously wounded during an attack on a Taliban stronghold. Dennis follows Harris back to North Carolina as he attempts to adjust to civilian life. Unable to walk or stand, he relies on his wife to help him dress and run errands.
Throughout the film, Dennis intercuts Harris’ mundane home life with flashbacks from his life on the battlefield — where Dennis was embedded as a photojournalist. He shows Harris in Marine mode, looking more alive and energized than he does as a wounded veteran, sitting in his living room or shopping at his hometown Wal-Mart.
Danfung weaves the flashbacks seamlessly into the present: As Harris darts around an Afghan village, gun in hand, the scene transitions into a first-person shooter game he’s playing back home. In this manner, Danfung conveys the surreal world that Harris lives in, where the terrifying moments from Afghanistan still resonate very much in his mind. As a result, he suffers from crippling headaches and develops a questionable dependency on drugs.
Harris’ story could have easily been overlooked for its familiarity — sadly, we’ve heard it many times before. But by splicing together past and present with such a fluid style, Danfung delivers the story with a revitalized poignancy.