Mike Boettcher has been reporting from conflict zones for 34 years. The Hornet's Nest highlights that fact almost immediately, in part to explain why he and his son, Carlos, have grown apart—too many missed birthdays and graduations over the years because of the job—and why they're embedded together with the U.S. Army in an attempt to “reconnect,” as Mike puts it. But Mike's journalistic credibility also serves, of course, as a necessary source of credibility for this documentary about the war in Afghanistan. Though the film is directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, two TV and film producers making their directorial debuts, it's carried by the authority brought to it by Mike, who captured the film's footage along with Carlos for over a year in Afghanistan. Mike's status as a journalist reporting for ABC News also positions him as a reliable third party to transmit the realities of war to the audience. Or that's the pitch at least.
The reality is that Hornet's Nest is far from an investigative report on the war, but it also doesn't entirely succeed at offering the glorified vision of the military that its tagline—“Real War. Real Heroes”—might suggest is its actual goal. In style, the film too often resembles a first-person shooter, as we're right there with Mike and Carlos in the field courtesy of cameras strapped to their helmets. To be fair, while the doc may make war look like a video game, it isn't a particularly entertaining one. The battles are chaotic scenes of shooting and shouting. Attached to Mike and Carlos, we get a seemingly unadorned view of the conflict, neither heroic nor horrific, just unruly.
What also becomes clear pretty quickly is that Mike and Carlos's insider perspective allows for close to no context beyond what their cameras directly capture. Mike vaguely outlines the missions they ride along with, and about all we learn about the war is that on one side lies the Taliban and on the other the U.S. fighting to make life better for Afghanis. There's no sense of who the enemy is beyond the bullets they shoot from the mountains and the IED's they leave planted on roads, and neither is there a well-developed argument for the virtues of the Americans. At one point, we're shown the aftermath of a roadside suicide bomb and how U.S. soldiers manage to get one Afghani boy to the hospital in time to save him from losing a leg. Mike and Carlos film him in his hospital bed and show us one soldier saying that he's the kind of victim our army tries to keep out of harm's way, but the details of the boy's life, his family, his circumstances are never mentioned. At the end of the film, Mike asserts, “We only do this to make a difference.” It's unclear whether he's referring to war journalism, serving in the military, or both. But regardless, it's the job of a journalist to determine, with detail, what that difference is. Hornet's Nest is content to call the troops heroes and be done with it.