Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hell and Back Again

HELL AND BACK AGAIN                    B                     
USA  Great Britain  Afghanistan  (88 mi)  2011  d:  Danfung Dennis      Official site

The timing of the release of this film is not nearly as impactive historically as another previously released Oscar nominated film RESTREPO (2010), shot by photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was recently killed April 20, 2011 during the Libyan uprising to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power.  At that time, shot during 2007-08, America was in the midst of leading a military surge into Afghanistan by taking it to the enemy, moving Army troops forward directly into enemy positions in an attempt to draw them into combat.  What felt like a suicide mission, troops surrounded on all sides, showed questionable judgment on the part of U.S. military leaders who were inclined to use soldiers as guinea pigs in the hopes that this aggressive military plan might work, where the region shown was at that time responsible for 70 % of all the ammunition ordinance used in the entire Afghan war.  After 15 months, the troops pulled back, as they were receiving too many casualties, leaving behind, unprotected, everything they had been risking their lives for.  RESTREPO remains the strongest case made yet against this kind of cowboy warfare, where America retains its mindset of arrogance and racial superiority, believing modern weapons and well-trained troops should do the job in wiping the enemy off the face of the planet.  Despite the heroism displayed by the soldiers, this has proved to be a foolish endeavor, as little was ultimately gained by such a risky operation.  Yet again, at the beginning of this film, shot in 2009 by photojournalist Danfung Dennis who is embedded with the troops, Marines are being reminded of the historical significance of their mission, as helicopters are about to drop soldiers behind enemy lines where it is believed their superior training and firepower should rule the day.  These men are the best trained soldiers America has to offer, yet once again their task is daunting, rarely, if ever, seeing the face of the enemy, yet continually subjecting themselves to relentless sniper fire.

Shot using an unvarnished cinéma vérité style, where the camera moves when the troops on the ground move, hearing everything that they hear, which includes the confusion of trying to identify the direction of incoming fire, as they are once again surrounded on all sides.  Almost immediately they lose a fallen soldier, once again questioning the wisdom of implementing such a mission.  What happens unexpectedly is that the leader on the ground, U.S. Marines Echo Company sergeant Nathan Harris, who commands the unit in the early footage, gets shot in the hip just a day before he is expected to return home from his third tour of duty.  The injury blows away part of his hip and leg, where he is seen afterwards back in North Carolina with his wife Ashley, where he has to adjust to the mindblowing ordinariness and mediocrity of regular life, which can’t compare to the intensity that he’s used to.  While his injury is not life threatening, he will likely have difficulty walking and leading any kind of normal life, where his adjustment is enormously difficult, especially since his pain medication often leaves him confused and bewildered, where he can be seen waving guns around in the house or in the car, several times pointed directly at his wife.  He appears to be an unexploded time bomb just waiting to go off and never once do we see any evidence of psychological counseling being offered, nor do we see the intervention of other family members.  It appears this soldier is left largely on his own to deal with such an immense, life-altering injury which carries with it as much emotional as physical damage. 

The film moves back and forth between the front lines and Harris’s life on the homefront, where the certainty in his mind of leading the mission, despite losing fellow soldiers and taking incoming fire, makes more sense to him than adapting to life back home under his current situation.  In Afghanistan, he’s in control, gladly assuming responsibility for others, but in North Carolina he doesn’t have the clue to recovery, which is filled with uncertainty, as neither he nor his wife have any answers for what the future holds.  In the meantime, he can make life miserable for her, where the title refers to his frame of mind after returning home, often becoming a bullying husband who flies off the handle over petty issues, which largely covers up just how weak and insecure he feels inside, something Marines aren't trained to feel.  None of his buddies are with him now, he has little use for a rifle, and he’s completely unsure what the future holds for the both of them, uncertain if they will even stay together.  While this film follows a severely wounded soldier back home, a story replicated thousands of times around the country, it also is being released at a time when the U.S. is making preparations to pull its forces out of Afghanistan, having already pulled troops out of Iraq, where the public has grown tired of a lingering war and wants to move on, as the economic climate is threatening everyone, literally kicking us all in the face, changing how people live their lives, where sympathy is not at a premium.  We all have to face the facts and make whatever adjustments are necessary to build a new life, one fraught with still more difficulties down the road, without the certainty of financial stability.  There is a real question to be asked whether this decade-long war on terror has made America safer or weaker?  Despite upgraded intelligence and security measures, it seems the government and the military may have overspent us into financial ruin, likely the exact overreaction that al Qaeda hoped for, financially destabilizing America’s place in the world, where the lifelong sacrifice of death and massive casualties to the surviving young soldiers is a heartbreaking picture of the price to be paid.

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