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'Hell and Back Again' on PBS for Memorial Day

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Friday, May 25, 2012

When the marines of Echo Company 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment enter Afghanistan in 2009, they’re told they’ll be enacting a “new” counter-insurgency strategy. Their commander names their essential contradictions. “Every interaction you have with the people is crucial,” he says, “We have to develop trust in them.” Strapping on gear and loading weapons, they are plainly “experts in the application of violence,” but they’re less equipped for developing “trust.” Within moments, these ideals are dismantled: a marine is badly injured, his buddies run him along a road, the camera jogging behind them. When the corporal dies, 26-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris steps up. He will be injured too, and Hell and Back Again, airing on PBS on 28 May, follows him home to North Carolina, where he struggles to find sense in what he’s done and how it plagues him. The film cuts back and forth, between the footage photographer-turned-filmmaker Danfung Dennis shot in Afghanistan over months and the diaristic scenes he shoots of Nathan home, talking to the camera, his wife Ashley, and his doctors. In pain and on medication, Nathan seems to be remembering what you see, but the documentary doesn’t pretend to know what he’s feeling. Instead, it observes and draws connections, scenes that show battles or Harris and his team breaking down doors or not quite conversing with Afghan locals, or more plainly showing the effects of action. These involve Ashley as much as Nathan: as she describes their journey as “to hell and back again,” you realize how they’ve paid, again and again.


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Yet another category of the Oscars that rarely gets the attention it deserves? Best Documentary Feature.
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In Hell and Back Again, Sergeant Nathan Harris is, as he says, home, most of the time. He's also transported back to the war repeatedly, in his memories.
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