Hell and Back Again: Following a Wounded Vet Home From Afghanistan

Danfung Dennis’ documentary seeks to chronicle 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 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’ 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. 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’ desperation to get back to what he was trained since the age of 18 to do: kill people. Shot in stunning, khaki-crisp digital, a Marine’s eyes have never looked this blue, nor blood so red.