By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
The Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary this year displayed a dazzling array of techniques and approaches to the craft, even if the subjects- Afghanistan War veterans, recently deceased artists, wrongful imprisonment, environmental terrorism, and high school football underdogs- all look familiar. Each was impressive in its own way, but in the case of two of them I had to call the approach into question. While the amateur sleuthing of Paradise Lost 3 was more ethically questionable, Hell and Back Again is the one that concerned me for the direction of documentary filmmaking itself.
The film follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris as he returns home from Afghanistan, seriously wounded and struggling to re-assimilate. His final mission, the one in which he was wounded, is recounted via flashback.
For good or ill, I haven’t seen a documentary quite like this. It captures your attention right from the beginning, throwing you right into the action before setting the tone for the rest of the film with a stunning flash-forward montage. From there, the slick editing and director/cinematographer Darfung Dennis’s gorgeous, immersing cinematography doesn’t let up. If you walked in on somebody watching this, you could easily assume this was a Hurt Locker-esqueHollywood production… more on that later.
Or, at times, a Walgreens commercial
The other thing I found admirable about this film was its lack of any overt position. It doesn’t need any talking heads to tell us War is Hell, or to explain to us how the complete disconnect between what’s running through the minds of American soldiers and what the common Afghani people are thinking bodes ill for their ultimate success in that conflict. Hell and Back Again demonstrates this latter point as well as I’ve ever seen it put forth, simply by fully translating their interactions with the soldiers, and letting their own words do the talking for them.
If one of the other intentions of the film was to show how war changes and hardens a man (the editing suggests it was), they didn’t pick a particularly good subject to follow. Sgt. Harris is obviously not completely right in the head, as we watch him joke around at home with a pistol like a five year old with a squirt gun, but I doubt he was ever any different than this. By his own admission, he “joined the military to kill people.”
Prepare to die, Grandma! Nah, I’m just kiddin’. I’d do it in your sleep.
My allusion to the Hurt Locker earlier is a comparison that this film can’t shake. It plays out like a mix of that movie and recent front lines documentaries like Restrepo and Armadillo. The story definitely has a tinge of the familiar, and some scenes are so similar that you can almost imagine Dennis storyboarding this out to hit all of the clichés. Returning veteran flabbergasted by the amount of choices at a big box store? Check. Intense battlefield flashbacks? Check. Frustration with personal relationships? Check… and there’s plenty more where that came from.
That leads us with the principal issue I have with this movie. When Harris puts his head in his hands while waiting for a drive-thru order, what is he thinking? Is it a debilitating battlefield flashback, a headache, or his deep, unbending hatred of chalupas?
Something I could never, nor ever would want to, understand
Dennis went with option A, and perhaps that is precisely what went through Harris’s mind, but there are way too many fancy edits of this nature for my taste. When you begin to edit together things to make a storyline that the camera didn’t and can’t capture, you start to chip away at the notion of the documentary itself.
At least when Michael Moore or his ilk use an edit or effect instead of pure footage to make a point, you can take it with a grain of salt. That’s why his films are more op-ed pieces than documentaries. But when serious, generally unbiased documentaries start relying on something besides source material to tell a story, I need a beer at least to suspend my disbelief, which is something a documentary should never ask you to do.
Darfung Dennis has a promising film career ahead of him… directing fiction. Applying Hollywood techniques to nonfiction, no mater how honestly compelling the subject is, drains the impact and the journalistic integrity from it. This movie sure is pretty, though.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every combat flashback
Take a Drink: for every war movie trope you spot
Drink a Shot: every time Sgt. Harris starts playing with guns at home