Like last month’s Where Soldiers Come From, director Danfung Dennis’s Hell and Back Again seeks to document the personal experience of war with extreme and sustained intimacy. The nightmare-vivid combat footage Dennis shot over the so-called Summer of Decision in 2009, while he was embedded with a Marine battalion behind enemy lines in southern Afghanistan, is only one part of that experience. Back on the home front, injured 25-year-old sergeant Nathan Harris becomes the nexus of an essential documentary that deploys a boldly cinematic arsenal to penetrate the indifference Dennis, a veteran of sorts himself after years spent as a photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, believes most Americans feel toward the forever wars.
Dennis follows Harris home to small-town North Carolina, where he recuperates from a shattered hip and leg with the help of his quiet, watchful wife. Fragments of Harris’s struggle to recover a sense of safety—courting pill dependence, an unsettling attachment to his gun—form a coherent portrait of an elusive conflict’s human legacy. Flashbacks, match cuts, and an impressionistic use of sound cultivate a powerful psychic fluidity between the intractable chaos of Helmand Province and the anxiety that cripples Harris in a Walmart parking lot or a car filled with chatter.
Working alone with a camera and his ingenuity, Dennis captured the surreality of firefights with an invisible enemy and the frustration of displaced civilians; images of the company’s casualties enforce the almost unbearable sense of futility. Also unblinking is the focus on Harris’s desperation to get back to what he was trained since the age of 18 to do: killing people. The tensely quotidian scenes at home build to an emotional velocity even beyond that of the combat sequences. Shot in stunning, khaki-crisp digital with the Canon 5D Mark II, a Marine’s eyes have never looked this blue, nor blood so red.