Review of Hell and Back Again

Review of Hell and Back Again directed by Danfung Dennis
Rating *** 1/2

This is a documentary film nominated for this year’s Oscar. I watched the film on my iPad. More on that later. Like Restrepo, last year’s Oscar nominated film about Afghanistan, this documentary goes behind the scenes with a group of soldiers fighting the Taliban. The focus of the film, however, is on one soldier, Nathan Harris, an army veteran who is wounded on one of his last combat missions before heading home.

The film tells two interwoven stories. The first story takes place in the villages of Afghanistan. The second story follows Nathan as he recovers from a gunshot wound that severely damaged his right leg, leaving him with pain and a permanent limp. I don’t normally single out editors of films, but the success of this film has a lot to do with the expert editing. Much of the film jumps back and forth between the two stories. In one scene you see Nathan seemingly out of it and over that image you’ll hear sounds from Afghanistan and then images of the war. Another example of this type of cross editing is when Nathan is walking with a cane in a hospital hallway. The camera focuses on his legs as he walks and then cuts to a scene of Nathan walking with full battle gear on.

I came away from the film with respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line, but I also felt that it is all for naught. Like the thousands of boys and young men who died in open fields during the civil war, the loss of life and the wounded doesn’t seem to justify the gain, if there is any gain. The Afghan people certainly don’t see any benefit of the ongoing war. They just want to be left alone to raise their children and farm their land. They could care less about the U.S. or the Taliban. All they know is that they are caught in the middle and suffering for it.

As is the experience with most U.S. soldiers, the enemy is never seen. Every gun battle consists of shots fired in the general direction of where they think the enemy is. The filmmakers allude to a specific mission in the beginning of the film, but that mission is never defined. It all seems like a total waste of time, money, and lives lost on both sides.

The biggest problem I had with the film was the lack of perspective from those around Nathan, like his wife Ashley or his friends and family. The closest they come to probing into how Nathan’s injury is affecting Ashley is a brief exchange at a pharmacy. In fact, it is this brief exchange that the title of the film comes about. It is Ashley who says that they’ve been through hell and back again. I think that should have been more of the story.

This is the first film I rented from iTunes. I watched the film on a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami. The cost was reasonable – $2.99 for  standard definition. HD was only a dollar more. I had thirty days to watch the film and once I started it I had a full 24 hours to complete it. I’ll definitely be renting more films this way. Next up is one of the other Oscar nominated documentaries.

A lot of people have picked this film to win the Oscar because of it’s subject matter, but my money is on the Memphis Three film. Those filmmakers helped free three innocent men, one from death row. Hard to compete with that.



  1. […] three films I did see – Paradise Lost, Hell and Back Again, and If a Tree Falls (review coming)- were arguably better than some of the best picture nominated […]

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