Hell and Back Again

Hell and Back Again.

Directed by Danfung Dennis.

The harrowing images of war that have come back to us from Iraq and Afghanistan have been matched, in many U.S. documentaries, by equally upsetting images of soldiers, many of them injured, attempting to adjust to the new normalcy of the homefront. Hell and Back Again was directed by Danfung Dennis, a photojournalist who was embedded with the Marines from Echo Company in their 2009 incursion into southern Afghanistan. The film’s focus is on 25-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris, who returns home to North Carolina with a shattered hip and leg.

Harris is not exactly a model rehabilation patient. Large crowds unnerve him, he is all too willing to show off his wounds, and he has a disturbing fondness for using his pistol as a plaything. His steadfast wife Ashley is by his side, but a halcyon future for them is by no means guaranteed. Dennis, who overdoes the cutting back and forth between images of battlefield and homefront, keeps political bias to a minimum. But in selecting Harris as his subject, he implicitly asks whether the cause Harris fought for was worth his sacrifice. The film also upends the conquering hero myth all too prevalent in wartime culture.

—Peter Rainer