"My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it," director Danfung Dennis says of his new documentary, Hell and Back Again
Ashley Harris helps Sergeant Nathan Harris, her husband, in Hell and Back Again / Courtesy Docurama Films
"We are experts in the application of violence," a commander tells a line of soldiers before they deploy. The camera cuts to men sitting in the cabin of a helicopter anxiously checking their guns and, seconds later, to a young marine bellowing on the battlefield as order disperses into the shouting chaos of war. Shot literally from the hip, the first five minutes of the documentary Hell and Back Again take place outside a remote village in southern Afghanistan, where the audience is dropped into the scuffle of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines, landing behind enemy lines and launching into battle. After the firefight, the camera quietly centers on a marine watching a heavy body bag carried by.
It is this kind of empathetic and poignant construction that won filmmaker Danfung Dennis the Sundance Film Festival Cinematography and Grand Jury Prizes for the documentary. The fight scenes screen like Platoon -- but they actually happened. Having the weight of verisimilitude, Hell and Back Again also delves into the inglorious aftermath of war, exploring the pains and challenges that face the marines both in Afghanistan and back home. The film's well-composed sequences, which have drawn comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick, flash from Dennis' time embedded with Echo Company in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to his time living with Sergeant Nathan Harris in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as the young veteran recovers from a severe hip wound.
Some of the most affecting scenes are off the battlefield. In North Carolina, Harris comes across as a boy with an unnerving attachment to guns, a youthful exuberance, and a faith in God and his country that is just beginning to be challenged. At home, Harris wears an Ed Hardy-style shirt with the bold text "Affliction," tottering on his walker and joy-riding in the electronic wheelchair cart at the local Walmart. He pulls his sweat pants down to show a realtor the jagged scar across his bottom as he limps with his young wife through a prospective house.
As Harris contemplates his future, struggling to come to terms with the length of his convalescence, the audience gets a rare glimpse into the sort of identity crisis that many veterans face upon returning home. From a slump on his couch after a physical therapy session, he says, "I wanted to be a roughneck, to spit tobacco, and to kill the enemy. I was a young cowboy." It's a hard sentiment to hear, and yet somehow easy to understand. He continues, "Being a grunt is over, and that's the only thing I want to be."
Hell and Back Again is already provoking conversation. During a Q&A after a screening in New York City, a woman wanted Dennis to renounce the soldiers' violence walked out when he wouldn't. Several veterans later stepped up to shake Dennis's hand. One of them thanked him, saying in a rough voice, "I never would have thought being in Iraq would have been the easy part. I don't think anyone wanted to kill civilians, but we were put over there to do our jobs. And I appreciate you portraying what we had to go through."
Nothing about the film is sugarcoated. In one jarring scene, an Afghan soldier cut in half by a mine disintegrates on camera as marines attempt to lift him into a body bag. In another, Harris threatens his own wife with a gun. Such scenes will be new to the average American viewer, even if they're not to the thousands of American veterans of Afghanistan.
Perhaps Harris himself describes the last ten years of war the best. In a haze of painkillers, still aching from the bullet wound that shattered his hip, he tells the camera, "It costs a lot."
Yet Dennis carefully avoids preaching, focusing instead on innocuous details, whether it's the glaring lights of the pharmacy where Harris' wife picks up his medications or the sand plumes from the Marines' footsteps as they sweep surveillance in the desert. Hell and Back Again may well be the closest to the war that many Americans ever get.
After a screening on the night of the tenth anniversary of the war, I met director Danfung Dennis. He was polished and his hair neatly combed -- not what you might expect from the director of such a gritty film. The entire documentary was shot with a hand-held Canon 5D Mark II, at f2.8, on a 24 to 70 mm zoom lens with a depth of field of mere inches, a remarkable technical feat.
How did you go from taking still images to film?
I worked for a number of years as a still photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan and even though my images were being published in magazines and newspapers, I felt like they weren't having any impact. People were numb to these images, and I was frustrated with the medium and decided to move into a different way to tell the story.
In July 2009, I knew of a very large operation that was happening. Four thousand Marines were being dropped behind enemy lines in the largest helicopter assault since Vietnam. I asked to go with the Echo Company because they were going the furthest behind enemy lines, to seize a key canal crossing. After we landed we were surrounded by insurgents. Extremely heavy fighting broke out, focused around this pile of rubble that became known as "Machine Gun Hill." This is what you see in the first scene [of the movie]. That first day a marine was killed and a dozen collapsed from heat exhaustion. Almost all of us had run out of water and it was 130 degrees. This was one of the most dire situations I'd been in. That's when Sergeant Harris passed me his last bottle of water and we first met.
I didn't know it was going to be a story about one marine or a story about coming home from war; it was just a natural progression. It wasn't until 6 months later, when the marines were stepping off the buses that I realized Nathan [Harris] wasn't there. I asked, "Where's Sergeant Harris?" and the guys said, "He was hit two weeks ago." So I called him up, just as he was leaving the hospital. He'd been medevac'd back to the U.S., he'd had half a dozen surgeries, he was in extreme pain, and feeling very guilty for leaving his men behind.
He invited me back home to his hometown in North Carolina and introduced me to his wife, his friends, his family, as "this guy who was over there with me." And that carried a lot of weight. Instantly, I was accepted into this very rural Baptist community, and I essentially lived with him and Ashley during his recovery and his transition between this world of life and death, blood and dust, and this world where it feels like everyone's at the shopping mall. The story became much more about this psychological personal struggle and what it's like to transition. I knew I had that structure and so worked very closely to build those two worlds together.
Have you had people interested in what your political message might be?
This film is completely non-political. I didn't have a message, left or right. I wanted to bring this tradition from photojournalism where you simply let what happens in front of the lens unfold. My job is to witness and show others in the most honest and truthful way. I'd say I have the same number of people who see this film that are very pro-military and think this is pro-military, and others who think it is an anti-war film. I think we achieved something by creating something that is almost a Rorschach ink test, where you see what you want to see. My intention was just to give an intensely personal, subjective experience of what it's like to go to war -- and what it's like to come home from it.
What was the response from the military?
I'll start with Nathan's response -- he didn't see any footage during the process, he really had to trust me to tell the story. It wasn't until the film was finished that Ashley, Nathan and I sat together in a theater and watched it. It was very emotional, very difficult for them to see. At the end when the lights came up, they looked at each other and said, "It was perfect." I've had very strong responses from many veterans and servicemen who see it. While it's the story of just one marine, they identify with it. They finally have a way to convey something that's very difficult to communicate. These experiences are extremely difficult to talk about; they're so traumatic. So I've gotten a lot of thanks for trying to tell their story.
To watch what you saw and recognize you're getting so close to the violence was impressive. What was shooting it like?
I built a custom camera system. I knew I'd be in very difficult conditions. I wanted to bring the power of the still image that I had been trained to convey, so I used a Canon 5 D Mark II. It's a stills camera that shoots very high quality HD video. But it has tremendous downsides. It was never designed to shoot film. It would overheat after a couple minutes of filming, and so I'd just have to shut down and wait for it to cool down before I could shoot again. I attached mounts and microphones, and put all of that onto a steady-cam-like device with weights on it, balanced in such a way that I could be running, and the marines could be running, and [I'd] still get steady tracking shots. I wanted to borrow from the language of cinema, combined with the power of photojournalism and photo-documentary film making. When I came home, I had about 100 hours of footage.
How's Sergeant Harris doing now?
We're still in very close touch. He's still an active duty Marine. He's in the Wounded Warriors Regiment. He's still going through a lot of physical therapy. He's not off his medication. A lot of them are no longer having the same impact as his tolerance has [been] raised. He still has quite a lot of pain. It is a pressing problem -- you come back with these horrific injuries. The body armor and the medical systems in the field have gotten so good that many of these men are coming back with injuries we've never seen before -- both physical and psychological, especially in repeated deployments. So they do need these meds, but they're the equivalent of heroin and morphine in their synthetic forms -- the [veterans] need the [drugs], but they're extremely addictive. His doctor says he's too young to be addicted to opiates. It's an entirely different struggle that comes with that form of injury.
Courtesy Docurama Films
He just recently started psychological counseling and he's still together with Ashley. She's an amazing woman, so patient, always there for him, but she's been through a lot. She's really tired. He's probably going to retire with medical benefits. But he's struggling with his identity. He was a shepherd of men; he had this purpose, a mission. He came back home badly wounded and he realizes he can never do what he did before. He's not quite sure what could fill that same sense of meaning.
By using non-documentary, feature-film techniques, were you ever worried you might lose the reality of the experience?
When I first started showing people footage without much context, almost the first thing they would ask is, "Is this real?" because they hadn't seen anything like this before. I was trying to use a lot of photography techniques: shallow depth of field, shooting in low light, and composition, making something aesthetically powerful. There are times when people almost forget this is a documentary so when it hits them -- "This is real" -- it hits them that much harder.
You can have your politics, but [veterans] should get the support they need when they get back. One of my hopes for this film is that it starts discussion about the war. That was one of the most disturbing things when I got back -- no one talked about it. We had just come back from this extremely traumatic, violent world, and back here it was something distant, far away. People thought of it as an idea, it was maybe two minutes on the news once in a while, and it was easy to think of it as an abstraction -- it wasn't real. That was very disturbing to me, it was hard to reconcile. It was very disorienting to come back and not be able to communicate.
With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
NEW YORK—Where were you the night Donald Trump killed the Republican Party as we knew it? Trump was right where he belonged: in the gilt-draped skyscraper with his name on it, Trump Tower in Manhattan, basking in the glory of his final, definitive victory.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
The odds of defeating the billionaire depend in part on whether Americans who oppose him do what’s effective—or what feels emotionally satisfying.
Tens of millions of Americans want to deny Donald Trump the presidency. How best to do it? Many who oppose the billionaire will be tempted to echo Bret Stephens: “If by now you don’t find Donald Trump appalling,” the Wall Street Journal columnist told the Republican frontrunner’s supporters, “you’re appalling.”
Some will be tempted to respond like anti-Trump protesters in Costa Mesa, California. Violent elements in that crowd threw rocks at a passing pickup truck, smashed the window of a police cruiser, and bloodied at least one Trump supporter. Others in the crowd waved Mexican flags. “I knew this was going to happen,” a 19-year-old told the L.A. Times. “It was going to be a riot. He deserves what he gets.”
Given her general election opponent, she has a historic opportunity to unite a grand, cross-party coalition.
The Republicans have made their choice. Now the Democrats’ likely nominee faces a dilemma of her own: Run as a centrist and try to pile up a huge majority—at risk of enraging Sanders voters? Or continue the left turn she’s executed through these primaries, preserve Democratic party unity—at the risk of pushing Trump-averse Republicans back to The Donald as the lesser evil?
The imminent Trump nomination threatens to rip the Republican party into three parts. Trump repels both the most conservative Republicans and the most moderate: both socially conservative regular church attenders and pro-Kasich affluent suburbanites, especially women. The most conservative Republicans won’t ever vote for Hillary Clinton of course. But they might be induced to stay home - if Clinton does not scare them into rallying to Trump. The most moderate Republicans might well cast a cross party line vote—if Clinton can convince them that she’s the more responsible steward and manager.
By handcuffing a new seriesto its online-only service, the network is trying to catch the next wave of the television industry.
What’s the easiest way to tell that we’re in the midst of a television programming revolution? Just look at what the networks, the dinosaurs of the industry, are doing to keep up. On Tuesday, CBS detailed its plans for its prospective Netflix competitor “CBS All Access,” a monthly subscription-based online service that will use a new Star Trek show to try and reel in viewers. But where Netflix’s strategy is to become a vast repository of original content, dumping whole seasons of original shows at a time for people to sample at their leisure, CBS is trying to hold onto the weekly model that has defined broadcast strategy for decades. That compromise is currently untested, but it could be the future of the medium.
A person’s age plays a role in when they think United States was at its peak—and Baby Boomers have a particularly dim view of the present.
Of all the themes powering Donald Trump's rhetoric, nostalgia is the strongest. Make America great again. We used to win. We're going to bring jobs back.
Republicans love a good bout of rocking-chair reminiscing. Others have noted the party's preoccupation with the word "restore," citing, among other things, Marco Rubio's newest book (American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone), Mitt Romney's super PAC ("Restoring Our Future"), and Glenn Beck's 2010 rally on the National Mall ("Restoring Honor"). When a party's central tenets include a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a commitment to traditional values, it can't avoid an existential yearning for days gone by. Trump has merely put a more populist spin on a longstanding impulse.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
A new partnership between Google and Chrysler is a reminder that self-driving cars won’t go anywhere until the public trusts they’re safe.
Google is more than doubling its fleet of self-driving vehicles this year. But instead of adding more of its own cute bubble-shaped vehicles, or another batch of Audis, Lexus SUVs, or Toyotas like those it currently uses to test its technology, Google is working with Chrysler to build 100 driverless minivans.
In one respect, this is straight out of the so-not-flashy-it’s-actually-flashy Silicon Valley playbook. (See also: Black turtlenecks.) But it’s actually a brilliant move on the part of Google. (And Chrysler, for that matter, but that’s another story.)
For one thing, self-driving cars, when they become available for purchase, are likely to crop up first in certain kinds of environments, like small cities or large corporate campuses. A vehicle that seats eight will be attractive for businesses and institutions that might want to snap up mini-fleets of driverless cars for ridesharing.
It is hard to imagine his visit will produce a vast material change in the beleaguered Michigan city.
The presidency carries some strange expectations—a fact that Barack Obama, nearing the home stretch of his tenure in the White House, surely knows well by now. The president holds great power and is called the leader of the free world, yet his power—even in this age of a strong executive—is constrained on all sides. Those limitations tend to be misunderstood by people who want his help, thanks to pervasive belief in what Brendan Nyhan calls the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.”
President Obama is visiting Flint, Michigan, a city poisoned by lead and bacteria in its water, on Wednesday. During his visit, Obama will be briefed by officials on relief efforts, meet with community leaders—including 8-year-old “Little Miss Flint" Mari Copeny—and deliver remarks. He will meet with Governor Rick Snyder, who has come in for harsh criticism for his handling of the crisis.
The Ohio governor is expected to suspend his presidential campaign Wednesday in Columbus.
John Kasich will end his bid for the presidency Wednesday afternoon in Columbus, according to multiple reports. Kasich had planned to hold a press conference at Dulles Aiport near Washington Wednesday morning, but he never took off—perhaps an apt metaphor—staying home and scheduling a press conference for 5 p.m., where he is expected to make his announcement.
The Ohio governor’s exit leaves Donald Trump as the last man standing in the Republican field. Though he’d already assumed the mantle of presumptive nominee with Senator Ted Cruz’s exit Tuesday night—after Trump trounced both of them in the Indiana primary—Kasich’s exit seals the deal. Kasich has been mentioned for weeks as a potential vice-presidential candidate for Trump, who will need to shore up his policy and political credentials ahead of the general election.
Does the presumptive Republican nominee see African Americans and Hispanics as part of the American “we”?
Celebrating his big win in Indiana—and his elevation to presumptive nominee of the Republican Party—Tuesday night, Donald Trump spoke at Trump Tower in New York City, where he delivered a promise to heal the deep fractures in his party.
“We want to bring unity to the Republican Party,” he said. “We have to bring unity. It's so much easier if we have it.”
That will be a tall order. But as a general-election candidate, Trump will need to win over more than just Republicans. In his inimitable way, he pledged to bring together the rest of the nation as well.
“We're going to bring back our jobs, and we're going to save our jobs, and people are going to have great jobs again, and this country, which is very, very divided in so many different ways, is going to become one beautiful loving country, and we're going to love each other, we're going to cherish each other and take care of each other, and we're going to have great economic development and we're not going to let other countries take it away from us, because that's what's been happening for far too many years and we're not going to do it anymore,” he said. (That’s a single sentence, if you’re keeping track at home.)