Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review - Hell and Back Again

You know how I always qualify my own Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary nominees with that tepid “subject-to-change” line? This is why.

Less than four days after finally settling on my Nazi Award winners, not only am I going to have to retroactively adjust my nominees (and winner) for Best Documentary, but several other categories as well. Hell and Back Again, which the Academy's documentary branch recently spurred me to investigate when they nominated it for Best Documentary, is straight up one of the best films of the year.
The subject is Sgt Nathan Harris, a gung-ho Marine whose leg was crippled by a bullet nearing the end of his deployment in a Taliban stronghold in the summer of '09. Now back on American soil and limping to readjust to civilian life, we see the exposed imbalance of a fragile mind who finds himself for the first time in a fragile body. Director Danfung Dennis employs a smart chronological structure that toggles back and forth between the “Hell” of Afghanistan and the “Back Again” of America, although by the end of the film it's suspected that home may have become Nathan's true hell.

Given it's thematic similarities to already successful films like the 2009 Oscar champion The Hurt Locker or the miraculous 2010 doc Restrepo, it would be dangerously easy for viewers to dismiss this topic as old hat, but Hell and Back Again possesses an equally potent emotional gut punch, not to mention an artistic quality that previous Middle East war films have not. Dennis endeavours to dissect and present his subject's state of mind by using bold cutaways and cross-fades (exceptionally executed by editor Fiona Otway) to draw direct connections between his wartime experiences and his home-front struggles. Many of the transitions are so organic and natural that some people could conceivably accuse the film of being scripted! In keeping with the spirit of true documentarianism, Dennis never indulges in talking head interviews of voice-over narration. His is a genuine objective observer piece completely devoid of politics or agenda, and the audience is better off for it.

There is little doubt to my mind that this is easily the best documentary of the year (sorry to have gotten your hopes up, The Interrupters!), but it's a shame that a film of this caliber couldn't receive recognition in other areas. The photography is stunning, J. Raplh's sound design beautifully assists the aforementioned editing, and he also wrote the poignant closing track sung by Willie Nelson's melancholy country rasp.

**** out of ****

No comments:

Post a Comment