The Crimson White

War documentaries deliver honest perspective

Walker Donaldson

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The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001, and support for the war is waning at a dramatic pace. In a post-Osama bin Laden world, the war, to many Americans, seems won. The face of international terrorism and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks is dead. America has gotten its vengeance and can come home. Regardless of the direction Afghanistan is heading, Americans believe we have done all we can.

For the second year in a row, a documentary about the war in Afghanistan has been nominated for an Academy Award. In 2010, “Restrepo” told the story of a U.S. Army platoon stationed deep behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Directed, produced and filmed by Sebastian Junger and Chris Hetherington, the film did not make an attempt at a political statement about Afghanistan but instead followed the soldiers in combat.

Filmed almost entirely in Afghanistan, “Restrepo” puts the viewer in the center of combat. In the opening scene of the film, a roadside bomb detonates under a vehicle in front of the one carrying the camera crew. As an al-Qaeda ambush ensues, the viewer is left wondering how anyone could survive the brutal onslaught, but out of the chaos of the opening scene comes a film about the camaraderie and brutality of the war.

“Hell and Back Again,” a 2011 documentary about Afghanistan, challenges the notion that America’s role in the future of Afghanistan is finished and yet also shows the seemingly futile efforts of the combat operations. Director Danfung Dennis’ first film, “Hell and Back Again” is a story of one man who has lived two lives. It follows Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris’ life as a sergeant in Afghanistan and his return home to the United States.

Following in the footsteps of “Restrepo,” Dennis’ film does not focus on the broader political implications of the war but instead centers around Harris’ time in Afghanistan and attempt to rehabilitate in the United States after a gruesome combat injury during his time in Afghanistan. “Hell and Back Again” is a cinematographic work of art. Dennis juxtaposes scenes of fast-paced combat and violence in Afghanistan with the slow-paced recovery efforts of Harris in North Carolina. The sessions of physical therapy and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on Harris are no less intense than the rocket attacks and gunfire of the Afghan combat scenes.

For a subject that is intensely political, these films succeed in telling the stories of the men in front of the camera. To most Americans, the war in Afghanistan seems distant. “Restrepo” and “Hell and Back Again” work to bridge the gap. Uninformed statements about policies and the future of the war are never made. Instead, the films offer a brilliant look into the lives of soldiers returning home from war.

In the opening scene of “Hell and Back Again,” a commander prepares the Marines, as they board helicopters, to make a daring mission deep into the heart of Afghanistan. He tells the men, “Some days, you’ll have goods days, and some days, you’ll have bad days.” His words seem obvious and are perhaps understated in lieu of the adversity the men know they will face, but they nevertheless fail to describe the challenging and complicated nature of the war in Afghanistan.

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War documentaries deliver honest perspective