A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is a natural leader of men. We sense that during the extraordinary combat footage in "Hell and Back Again," not because he behaves heroically or makes eloquent speeches, but because he knows his job and believes in it. He's in his mid-20s, sometimes looks and sounds younger, and yet his sense of mission carries him forward and we understand why men would follow him into danger. He seems to be a good man, brave, uncomplicated.
Near the end of a six-month tour in Afghanistan, a sniper's bullet "blows half his ass off," as he puts it in "Hell and Back Again," one of this year's nominees for the best documentary Oscar. He is not shy about describing his wound. More than once during this film he pulls down his belt to allow people to see the crater left on his right hip by a bullet, and then he explains how it penetrated to his hip socket, "messed that up" and bounced off to shatter his leg lower down. The first time he explains this, he is sitting in a battery-powered cart in a Wal-Mart, talking to an elderly woman shopper in a matching cart. "Can I give you a hug?" she says, and his smile suggests how much backed-up tension that released.
Harris was lucky not to be paralyzed. He is disappointed to learn that it will take him a year of rehab before he can think about going into combat again. We privately understand his combat days are in the past. Hasn't he paid his dues? He doesn't think so. We don't know him well enough. Even when he was a kid, he says, he wanted a job where he could kill people. That's why he enlisted in the Marines at 18. Now he's done a little growing up, he reflects, and things no longer seem that simple.
In Afghanistan, he clearly believes in the U.S. mission from deep in his heart. There are three scenes where he talks with village elders through a translator, explaining how he and fellow Americans are there to bring them freedom. The elders are not convinced. The American and the Taliban are all the same to them, destroying crops, disrupting rural life, causing many to flee from areas altogether. They seem to have no love for the Taliban, but foreigners come and go and the Taliban is always there.