"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.
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.
A best-selling author submits a draft to his editor. Hijinks ensue.
I had written five books for Scott Moyers, following him as he moved from editing jobs at Scribner’s to Random House and then to Penguin Press. We worked well together, and in part thanks to his strong editing hand, my last three books had been bestsellers.
So what happened when I finished years of work and sent him the manuscript of my sixth book stunned me. In fact, I was in for a series of surprises.
They began about 18 months ago, after I emailed to him that manuscript, a dual appreciation of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. When I had begun work on it, in 2013, some old friends of mine thought the subject was a bit obscure. Why would anyone care how two long-dead Englishmen, a conservative politician and a socialist journalist who never met, had dealt with the polarized political turmoil of the 1930s and the world war that followed? By 2016, as people on both the American left and right increasingly seemed to favor opinion over fact, the book had become more timely.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Memorials to the Lost Cause have always meant something sinister for the descendants of enslaved people.
For most of my life I didn’t know Confederate statues could come down.
Throughout my childhood, those equestrian statues of victory, obelisks, and granite figures of soldiers were as immovable and immutable as the hills and the lakes. Other symbols of the South as it was before 1865 were also part of the fabric of reality. Old battle flags were inevitabilities, waving in the wind. Plantations might as well have been wonders of the world, and old battlefields holy places. Part of living in the South, just as much as eating and breathing were, was partaking in a perpetual reenactment.
In my hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, we have our own little shrine to the Confederacy. The Nash County Confederate Monument is a column with one soldier standing atop its apex, surrounded by four shorter empty columns.The base is engraved with two rifles crossed.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the end of August.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
“If you think strong statements or mere pressure from the U.S. will be sufficient to really convince Pakistan to change its calculus, that is like really living in a fool’s paradise.”
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” said President Trump in a Monday night speech outlining his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. With those words, he gave perhaps the strongest public criticism by a U.S. president of Pakistan’s policy in that war, but also echoed a widely held view among U.S. national-security experts. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
But Pakistan itself has been the victim of several high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, and its government quickly declared the remarks about safe havens part of a “false narrative,” insisting that “No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism. ... It is, therefore disappointing that the US policy statement ignores the enormous sacrifices rendered by the Pakistani nation in this effort.”
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
In keeping with his non-confrontational approach, the House speaker offered the gentlest of criticism during a CNN town hall for the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Paul Ryanwill distance himself from the president. He’ll occasionally offer some polite and always constructive criticism of Trump’s most egregious tweets and statements. But the Republican House speaker will not do battle with a man who, as of about a year and a half ago, he wanted to see anywhere but the Oval Office.
That was the main, not-particularly-surprising takeaway from Ryan’s CNN town hall on Monday night, an event that Trump upstaged with his last-minute decision to deliver an address to the nation on Afghanistan. Held in the speaker’s Wisconsin congressional district, the town hall was ostensibly an opportunity for Ryan to talk up tax reform and remind constituents and the nation at large that House Republicans—if not their counterparts in the Senate—have been more productive this year than the media has given them credit for.
In recent decades higher-education institutions have tried to lure students with extravagant amenities, but some are finding that these attempts can actually threaten enrollment and retention.
When I was a college freshman in the early 1990s, I lived in a dorm that was as sterile as a hospital room, a 193-square-foot box with white cinderblock walls that I shared with two other guys. The bathroom was also shared—with an entire floor.
Such basic living quarters greeted generations of college students before me. For much of the history of American higher education, dorms and other student amenities—from dining halls to recreational centers—were an afterthought to the primary business of campus planning: grand academic buildings. In fact, in the 1840s, the president of Brown University described dorm life as “unnatural” and blamed student housing for most of the evils of college life. Brown and Columbia University even attempted to eliminate dorms from their campuses. While that move ultimately proved unsuccessful, student housing and other facilities that supported student life on most campuses remained a fairly spartan experience up until the 1990s.