Stunning visuals and powerful storytelling draw the viewer into the life of Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, a man who is forever changed — both physically and emotionally — by war in “Hell and Back Again.” Director Danfung Dennis is able to capture Harris’ mentality in this moving documentary.
The film portrays Harris’ life in a delicate manner, resulting in an extremely observational and poetic documentary. Dennis presents a man who believes in his mission, a soldier completely drawn by a sense of purpose and honor. His bravery allows him to lead his men through battle — and then back home.
But while the soldiers leave the atrocities of war, viewers find out that the painful memories never completely leave them. Dennis skillfully weaves scenes of war in with Harris’ time at home. However, even while at home, his desire to fight is apparent in his words and actions.
Sound plays a crucial role throughout the film, leading viewers through war scenes and then back into Harris’ reflection at home. Overlapping transitional audio allows the viewer to feel how the war always follows veterans home.
Dennis creates a sentimental portrait of Harris both before and after the war. Harris is portrayed as brave and composed, able to command troops with ease and gather information with expertise. It is an enjoyable experience to watch him in action, but quickly becomes upsetting. The construction of the film is carefully planned so that the viewer has a better understanding of Harris’ emotions.
Dennis’ experience as a photojournalist comes through in the film’s cinematography. Using a camera with a small form factor allowed Dennis to get close to the action. During the war scenes, he is on the ground with the troops, crawling in the ditches as guns fire around him. This perspective allows for the cinematic look and shallow depth of field — a common feature of fiction films.
At the end of the film, the viewer can see the argument the documentary presents: war is something that will always be with those who experience it. The final scene of the film has Harris speaking about the realization that he is finished and that his mind will always have to deal with the haunting memories of war.