Blu-Ray Review: Hell And Back Again



Rating: Unrated but continues pervasive language and graphic war images.
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Studio: Docurama Films/New Video
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Director: Danfung Dennis
Stars: Nathan Harris and Ashley Harris.

Technical Details:

Visual: Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC; Video resolution: 1080p; Aspect ratio: 1.78:1; Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English

Studio Synopsis:

A master filmmaker and photographer, Danfung Dennis follows 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris on his most difficult mission: coming home after being seriously wounded in Afghanistan. Embedded with Harris’s unit during their assault on a Taliban stronghold, Dennis brilliantly toggles between the intense experience of war, stunningly photographed by the director himself, and the challenges of re-adjusting to civilian life in small town North Carolina. Hell and Back Again brings the war home in ways that make gun-toting soldiering look like a day at the beach compared with the physical and psychic scars that manifest upon returning home..

My Home Video Review (***1/2)

Countless films have attempted to define the war experience – on its soldiers, the families of those who are killed in combat, and those who have survived and outlived unspeakable horror. Rare is the film that goes this deep, pulls the curtain back this far, and reveals so much. Nathan Harris desperately wants to come home to a “normal” life but a machine-gun bullet’s destruction of his hip and near severing of his right leg made that next to impossible. Ashley has Nathan home, but a different Nathan than she has ever seen. He wants to go back but cannot. He plays “Halo” and other shoot-and-kill video games. He is stuck at home, largely at first, unsure if he will ever walk again. He visits friends at the base and is uncomfortably caught between humility and a momentary celebrity status when he discusses his injuries. And he and Ashley argue and fight. And he begs for drugs. And he is easily agitated and his personality seems different. Is this Nathan Harris?

Dennis is so deeply invested in this story and what he has personally experienced that he and his editor Fiona Otway have masterfully created a documentary which employs the more traditional flashback and sensory-based editing techniques you find in fictionalized filmmaking. Sounds from the home life trigger footage from the war zone in Afghanistan and because Dennis was with Harris in both the combat of war and the combat of adjusting to home life, he intercuts those two worlds beautifully. At times, watching Hell And Back Again is captivating, not simply for the subject matter, but on how technically accomplished a film this truly is. As a fan of documentaries, admittedly most of them follow a traditional approach at telling its story. Hell And Back Again is not traditional in any conceivable way, but in striving for originality, Dennis never loses tone or focus. The insight he gives us is unparalleled.

The Extra Content:

Audio Commentary: Featuring director Danfung Dennis and editor Fiona Otway, the two filmmakers discuss Dennis’ experience in serving as an embedded journalist with Nathan Harris’ battalion, the friendship and bond he formed with Harris, the technical aspects which he created, literally, to obtain the candid and unflinching footage on the ground, as well as the decision to cross-cut between domestic life and the life Harris shared in Afghanistan.

Technical Gear Demo (5:46): Danfung Dennis narrates, over B-roll and scenes from the film, details regarding the makeshift camera, harness, and functional equipment he created to shoot the footage found on the battlefield.

Did You Kill Anyone? (7:10): A lecture from a Marine specialist and counselor who discusses the difficulties families and soldiers can often have when the soldier returns home from war.

Invisible Wounds (4:15): Nothing more, nothing less – a speech which discusses what physical and psychological injuries to soldiers can do to their emotional well-being.

Collateral Damage (3:00): Footage of Harris and his fellow soldiers cutting loose a bit.

“Hell And Back” Music Video; song performed by Willie Nelson (3:14): This music video of Willie Nelson’s theme song to the film is simply comprised of images both found and not found in the film. Nelson, himself, never appears in the music video.

Blue Star Families PSA (0:35): Information on how families can contact Blue Star Families if a returning soldier and loved one is facing difficulty adjusting to home life or exhibits signs of emotional or psychological distress.

Overall Thoughts:

At first blush, I did not think I was up for, interested, or in the mood for what I thought would be just another “War Movie.” After being stunned and awed by 2010’s Restrepo, I incorrectly believed that Hell And Back Again would simply walk those same paths. What makes Hell And Back Again so noteworthy is the meticulous care and effort made by director Danfung Dennis and editor Fiona Otway in taking sound, images, and comments, and brilliantly linking those together, be it at home and in Afghanistan. Harris’ struggles are important to observe, contemplate, and consider, as in a time of war we are quick to herald our fighting men and women as heroic, and then our actions seem to indicate that in doing so, we have met our obligation of thanks.

Hell And Back Again reminds us that as ugly and as unforgiving as war can be and so often is, for some soldiers the hardest part is compressing all that they have experienced and living a “normal life.” Without preaching and in simply documenting Nathan and Ashley Harris’ adjustments to Nathan’s new life at home following life-threatening injuries in Afghanistan, we see right through the glossed over images of our soldiers valiantly returning home and being pillars in their communities. Instead, we see pain, fear, addiction, hesitancy, and for Ashley Harris, a new Nathan Harris, different than the one she fell in love with and married as her high school sweetheart. Hell And Back Again serves as a necessary and revelatory tool in understanding that the trauma our soldiers face is not isolated only in a war zone, but exists in a new and unexpected war zone all of its own.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.