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Hell and Back Again

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 84th Annual Academy Awards…               Pretty harrowing stuff, and the finest of the three documentary Oscar nominees I have seen—thus far. How to describe Nathan Harris, the young sergeant wounded in Afghanistan and the main focus of this film? He obviously was ready to die for his country(and almost did), when sent overseas to battle the Taliban. Director and photojournalist Danfung Dennis captures not only scenes of Sgt. Harris’s recuperation at home in the U.S., but also the desert battles that eventually lead to his injuries. A bullet punctured his backside, shattered his hip and lodged in his leg. We see his painful physical rehabilitation, which will improve his ability to walk unaided—although he is told that a permanent limp is likely. The impact this will have on his civilian life is not what disturbs Harris, however. The unlikelihood of him being able to return to Afghanistan and serve in the same capacity is what depresses him most. Those of us who have never been a part of the military will, most likely, find this difficult to understand.               This chronicle does not shy away from showing the dark side of this man. And whether you believe this demeanor is a necessary evil among fighting men and women, or not, doesn’t change the fact of how disturbing his actions can be. Sgt. Harris describes joining the Marines at age 18(he’s around 25 in the film)with the express purpose of “wanting to kill”. He is told by his recruiter that this is a “fine goal”. Later when playing with a loaded gun, and then teaching his disinterested young wife how to load and shoot same, you’ll wonder if this man will ever “leave” the battlefield. Or kick the drugs. He runs down the names of a vast variety of pills he is dropping since getting shot. Harris admits that he is in a drug-induced stupor often, and that tasks as simple as ordering a meal at a fast food joint causes him great anxiety. He was more at peace in combat then enduring the inanities of traffic and mundane malls.               The juxtaposition between the soldier and civilian life of Harris is a gripping dichotomy. At least one thing is constant in both—and that is the tears spilt over fallen comrades. You will see the results of death by extreme violence as soldiers weep over their mangled friends. Just as difficult to watch is a stateside memorial service for some of those killed. An officer attempting a eulogy is nearly too overcome with emotion to pull it off. The remorse exhibited in that scene is among the most memorable I’ve witnessed in documentary film-making this past year. It’s gut-wrenching. But the primary eye is on Sgt. Harris. And he is a compellingly real and sympathetic character throughout. When watching his violent tendencies, you never lose sight of what brought him to that point. You’ll wish him success on his journey to not only physical recovery, but also mental stability. But I also pondered whether his spouse would be in this for the long haul. And understanding both sides of that choice.          Grade: A-

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