Unlike most war docs, which tend to only skim the surface of its gun-toting subjects' lives, photojournalist Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again isn't content to merely capture warriors in combat. He follows an injured Sgt. Nathan Harris all the way from Afghanistan to his home in North Carolina, where his wife and high school sweetheart Ashley is helping to reconstruct their former lives. From its high-adrenaline opening of Echo Company preparing to take a Taliban stronghold before they're ambushed and lose a man, which segues to footage of the unit's homecoming, the documentary smartly shuttles between the sergeant in the heat of battle and his tackling of daily mundane tasks. Refreshingly, Dennis is less concerned with questions of morality than he is in pondering how a person can mentally take the leap from making life and death choices for himself and the men under him to deciding where to park the car at Wal-Mart.
In addition to presenting fairly predictable scenes (Nathan plays video games in a childish reverie), Dennis also manages to treat us to some profoundly Zen-like admissions. "If I do everything right and my men do everything right, I could still die—so you just have to accept it," the sergeant matter-of-factly states. And the life of pain, pills, and nausea that Nathan has come back to is something, like the memorial service for the fallen in which an Army chaplain breaks down and can barely make it through his speech, we don't often see. When a sincere soldier helplessly following orders meets with upset Afghan villagers, it becomes frustratingly clear that all are merely pawns in a bigger game. Taking a truly humanistic approach, Dennis is able to uncover the fragility beneath the gung-ho attitude and body armor without flinching from the complicated and messy reality these men reside in. Nathan nonchalantly says that he joined the Marines because he always wanted to kill people, this to the delight of his recruiter, but that the allure of being a young cowboy eventually wore off. Nevertheless, Nathan is devastated after his doctor tells him it'll be at least a year before he'll be well enough to fight again. (Later, the sergeant reluctantly admits that his days of being a grunt are over—and yet that's the only thing he really wants to be.)
While the stellar editing by Fiona Otway, who knows how to weave together a narrative with subtlety, packs a punch (the graphic reality of a freshly killed corpse being lifted on to a stretcher gives way to a shot of Nathan and Ashley outside Walgreen's), the sound design by J. Ralph, another indie-film vet, is often too much of a good thing. Bringing the audience into Nathan's head may be a great idea in theory, but listening to a doctor's voice fade in and out as he cautions Nathan against opiate addiction is both distracting and obvious—as is the thrum of a plane heard while Nathan is checking out the interior of a house he wants to rent (which foreshadows a cut to soldiers kicking down a door). But as Nathan plays with loaded guns like they're toys and Ashley reveals that her husband turns in to a different person sometimes (and that only their love has kept them together—that they've been to hell and back), Dennis's doc becomes a universal soldier's story. Like many a military spouse, Ashley doesn't realize that her husband actually is a different person, and that the man she married will never be returning home. Heartbreakingly, she isn't yet aware that they're still in hell.