"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.
If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class.
The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
Trinity Lutheran v. Comer finds that governments can’t discriminate against churches that would otherwise qualify for funding just because they’re religious institutions.
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the state of Missouri cannot deny public funds to a church simply because it is a religious organization.
Seven justices affirmed the judgment in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, albeit with some disagreement about the reasoning behind it. The major church-state case could potentially expand the legal understanding of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship, which could have implications for future policy fights—including funding for private, religious charter schools.
Trinity Lutheran is a big case that hinges on mundane facts. In 2012, when Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to resurface its playground, it was ranked as a strong potential candidate for the program. Ultimately, though, Missouri denied the funding under a state constitutional provision that prohibits public money from going to religious organizations and houses of worship. “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his decision for the majority. “A church.”
The president may be overstating the gang’s impact.
As President Trump sat for Time’s Person of the Year interview last year, he excused himself and returned with a copy of Newsday. He wanted to show editor Michael Scherer a headline. “‘EXTREMELY VIOLENT’ GANG FACTION,” it read, and the article told of murders in Suffolk County, New York, all linked to MS-13. One murder was that of 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, who’d argued with MS-13 members at her high school. The gang, many of them also teenagers, found Cuevas and a friend walking along the street and beat them with baseball bats and hacked at them with machetes. “They come from Central America,” Trump said to Scherer. “They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met. They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal.”
The Supreme Court announced Monday it will review the president’s controversial executive order next term. But in the meantime, the administration can enforce some of its provisions.
Updated at 2:57 p.m. ET
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a series of lower-court rulings blocking the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on Monday, setting up a major showdown over presidential power and religious discrimination.
In an unsigned order issued on the Court’s last day before its summer recess, the justices scheduled oral arguments in the case for when they return in October. They also partially lifted the lower courts’ injunctions against Section 2(c) of President Trump’s executive order, which temporarily suspended visa applications from six Muslim-majority countries, as well as Section 6, which froze the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and halted refugee entry into the United States.
The South Coast, a 30-mile drive from Palo Alto, is facing an affordable-housing shortage that is jeopardizing its agricultural heritage.
On the drive up the coast from the southernmost part of Northern California’s San Mateo County, Highway 1’s two lanes are surrounded by wind-whipped seas on one side and redwood forests on the other. The landscape is dotted with wild yellow mustard in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. A popular place for day-trippers to picnic, go wine-tasting, and shop at roadside farm stands, the region—affectionately nicknamed “the Slowcoast” for its unhurried pace—is a balm to the busyness nearby in Silicon Valley, to the east, and San Francisco, to the north.
Home to fewer than 3,000 people, the South Coast is the least densely populated part of the Bay Area. While it feels like a region unto itself, it is part of San Mateo County, which is where—just over the Santa Cruz Mountains—several big tech companies, such as Facebook and Oracle, are based. South of those firms’ campuses (in Santa Clara County) are the well-known tech hubs of Mountain View, Cupertino, and Palo Alto. San Mateo County is also the home of some of the wealthiest tech executives: The city of Atherton, about a 30-mile drive from the South Coast, was, according to Forbes, the country’s most expensive zip code in 2015 and the third-most expensive in 2016. The countywide median price for a single-family home reached $1.2 million last year.
The mercurial comedian, who plays the disruptive Erlich Bachman, departed the show under mysterious circumstances in Sunday’s season finale.
If you watched Sunday night’s fourth-season finale of Silicon Valley without reading the accompanying online chatter, you might not have realized that it marked the final appearance of one of its most beloved characters, Erlich Bachman (played by the comedian T.J. Miller). On a mission to retrieve the tech CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) from his retreat at a Tibetan monastery, Erlich gets waylaid at an opium den; a frustrated Gavin pays the proprietors to keep him busy there for five years. It sounds final, but it’s also exactly the kind of ridiculous predicament Erlich got himself in for the entirety of the show’s run. So why is this the way Silicon Valley chose to say goodbye to him?
As usual with an unexpected showbiz departure, there have been multiple reported sides to the story. It’s hard to imagine that Miller’s departure will be a good thing for Silicon Valley: Erlich has always served as a delightful narrative wrench for the show, sidetracking stories and upsetting the Pied Piper team’s apple cart with his oft-stoned, egotistical antics. A Silicon Valley without Erlich will be a smoother show, but not necessarily a better one—especially since the character embodied the sort of unrestrained, tech-industry id the series sought to satirize.
Let’s first acknowledge that Gchat was never officially called Gchat. Launched in February 2006, Google named it Google Talk, refusing to refer to it by its colloquial name. For anyone mourning its demise, which the company announced in a March blog post, those names sound awkward, like they’re describing something else. To me, and to many other users, it’s Gchat, and always will be.
The brilliance of Gchat was that it allowed you to instant message any Gmail user within a web browser, instead of using a separate application. This attribute was a lifeline for those of us who, a decade ago, were online all day at our entry-level jobs in open offices, every move tracked on computers that required admin access to download new software, with supervisors who could appear behind you at any time. You could open a separate browser window or a single tab, keeping Gchat running in the background as you ostensibly worked on projects aside from the dramas of your personal life.
The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war. Can the party reconcile the demands of its donors with the interests of its rank and file?
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America aren’t the hipster protesters who flitted in and out of Occupy Wall Street. They aren’t the hashtavists of #BlackLivesMatter. They aren’t the remnants of the American labor movement or the savvy young dreamers who confront politicians with their American accents and un-American legal status.
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.
The Georgia congressional race didn’t show a party on pace to take back the House next year.
In the wake of last week’s special congressional election in Georgia, on which Democrats spent more than $30 million only to come up short, some on the left have taken solace in the idea that the result was nonetheless a good portent—a sign that Democratic candidates are poised to win the House next year.
The Georgia race, they point out, took place in a “very Republican district”—one that went for its Republican representative, Tom Price, by a 23-point margin last year. (Price triggered the special election when he took the job of health and human services secretary in the Trump administration.) Republican Karen Handel, by contrast, won by just 4 percentage points, 52 percent, compared to 48 percent for the Democrat, Jon Ossoff.
Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on persuading anti-vaxers, predicting the next outbreak, and working with Trump.
If you run into a left-leaning “consultant” these days, there’s a fairly good chance they used to work for the Obama administration. Scores of federal officials and bureaucrats have resigned or been fired since President Trump’s inauguration, some after realizing their goals were not in line with the new president’s.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wasn’t one of them. In fact, he seemed surprised at the suggestion that he might do something other than what he’s been doing since he began leading the institute in 1984—trying to protect people from diseases like Ebola, Zika, and HIV.
This is despite the fact that some of Trump’s policy proposals seem to directly contradict his efforts. Trump has proposed cutting funding for a program that provides HIV drugs to people in poor countries by 17 percent. Not long after, six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS resigned, citing "a president who simply does not care.”