Nonstop Movies: ‘Hell and Back Again’

I must admit I’m not the greatest fan of documentaries. Movies, to me, are a form of escapism, taking me away from reality and telling me fantastic, interesting stories of fictional characters that I would never otherwise encounter. Sure, I’ve enjoyed popular documentaries like “Spellbound,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Super Size Me.” But I don’t go out of my way to see documentaries, especially if the subject is potentially depressing, because I don’t really enjoy seeing real people suffer. Still, I went to a screening of “Hell and Back Again,” since I’ve always been intrigued by the war genre.

The film opens with a real war battle in Afghanistan, where Sgt. Nathan Harris is nearing the end of his current tour. Soldiers have been deployed to fight, and as the commander, he gives orders. One thing he says really stands out —  “We are experts in the application of violence.” Essentially, he acknowledges that as soldiers, they’re trained killers, where the goal is to kill your enemies until just one side is left standing.

The opening battle scene rivals any Hollywood war film, with U.S. troops under fire from the Taliban. Knowing it was real footage made it that much more powerful. The film then takes us forward in time to Harris at home in North Carolina, coping with a major bullet wound suffered in Afghanistan. We see him trying to lead a normal life, shopping at Walmart, buying food at a drive-through, and much credit must be given to his wife, who is always there helping him walk, massaging his legs and giving him medicine. Despite his wounds, Harris yearns for the opportunity to heal and return to the front lines.

The film then goes back to Afghanistan, where we see an entirely different struggle, one of villagers caught in the midst of war. Although they oppose the oppression of the Taliban and want it overthrown, they also suffer from the American occupation of their villages. Livestock are uncared for, wheat is spoiled and children become ill. Villagers simply want to live comfortably, yet they remain victims of the power struggle between U.S. forces and the Taliban.

“Hell and Back Again” doesn’t really break new ground, merely reemphasizes what the world already knows —that war is hell. Still, it’s an effective film, with the scenes of Harris at home being particularly compelling. Although he puts on a strong public face, in private, it’s obvious how much he’s suffered and will continue to suffer from his participation in the ongoing war.

“Hell and Back Again” can be seen at Consolidated Theatres Mililani starting today.