Hell and Back Again – 2011
Directed by Danfung Dennis
Documentary regarding Nathan and Ashley Harris, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan
There is a moment in the midst of Hell and Back Again where Nathan Harris, while driving in his car, decides he is tired of hearing his wife’s joking around in the back seat. Without skipping a beat in the conversation, he pulls out his pistol and casually aims it in her general direction. Is he joking? The reaction of the rest involved nervously says that he must be. Even as a joke, though, this is too far for any normal citizen. Nathan, however, is anything but a normal citizen.
As the leader of Echo Company, back in Afghanistan, we see an entirely different, but just as lethal, man. Nathan is a Marine, and Hell and Back Again describes simultaneously his service attempts at bringing freedom to the people of the country he is deployed in and then his struggle to become a fully functional being, months after being shot up in his last week of the deployment.
The tale is a harrowing one. His adjustment to the pain of the injury and his recovery is one thing. Quite another is the post traumatic stress he is experiencing. Making it worse is the concept that his recovery, at the very least, will never allow him to walk without a limp again. Importantly to Nathan, this alone cannot get him disqualified from service. Recent changes to the law have made it possible for those injured in combat to stay with the military. This glimmer of hope is one thing that motivates him beyond anything else: to get back on the field, as a grunt. For now, though, he gets to lump it at home, going back and forth to doctors, therapists and funerals for his fallen comrades. His wife is with him every step of the way, ever supportive, and always listening to his stories, explanations, rants…
His goal of returning to service carries him through the early stages and pressures. Simultaneously, we are given a parallel vision of his service abroad, finding him to be a patient, caring and resourceful man. His dealings with the frustrated local citizens is a picture of how to navigate the toughest situations. He knows they only want the U.S. to leave, but his orders have him understanding that leaving will only allow the Taliban back into their lives. Nothing the Marines do has proven any different to them. The Afghanistan citizens have seen this too many times with too many outsiders to believe that this group will be any different from the others.
Hell and Back Again is a study of contrasts. As we see our Marines apologize for damage done to the huts of the locals, back in the U.S., we see Nathan and Ashley looking for a new house to rent that will allow him room to rehabilitate. They look through nice houses with green lawns and picket fences. In Afghanistan, the huts climb out of the ground, with dirt floors and blankets covering the doors. There are scenes interspersed where troops bust through these doors and search through these houses for suspected Taliban, who constantly shoot and run. It’s like chasing ghosts, and the ordinary citizens have to suffer through it.
Towards the end of his deployment, we begin to see Harris begin to crack. He is short with his soldiers, and searching out the sound of the shot at all times. He is not the only one floundering, as we see a serviceman crying over a dead comrade as he lies prostrate in the middle of a field. His time is catching up with him. Back at home, we see the relationship between he and his wife begin to sour. Harris begins to spend more and more time with his gun, going so far as to show the way he has his it hidden under his bed, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. Later, in a state that seems to be brought on by his medication, he shows his wary spouse how to load a clip. She keeps her eyes on his gun, but its not for purposes of her edification.
I am left with a lingering impression after watching the trials of Nathan and Ashley Harris. As she drops him off at a Walmart, he laments that the parking is so atrocious. He says that he would rather be back in Afghanistan than have to navigate such ridiculous circumstances just to shop. Once he is in there, he finds the company of a greeter while fitting himself into a cart. He talks with her briefly. He answers her questions. She finds out that he was injured in the line of duty while serving our country. She asks if she can give him a hug. Everyone in this country should do the same.
(****1/2 out of *****)