'Essential Killing' and 'Hell and Back Again' Tackle a Tricky Subject: America's Wars in the Middle East

A couple of years ago, a new edition of the Medal of Honor video game emerged for previews with an edgy new feature: the option of playing a Taliban fighter attacking American troops. Pundits and others concerned with American gamers taking the enemy side in a mock-up of ongoing combat protested; game company EA subbed the designation "opposing force" for "Taliban" in the game before its release, changing nothing else. It seems unlikely that this flicker of first-person-shooter-driven empathy was a sign that we're reaching that point where we can begin to address the Afghanistan War with a more nuanced view, but a pair of recent home-video releases suggest that we're gaining the kind of perspective on the 10-year-old conflict that often starts to work itself out onscreen.

The most unlikely such title has to be Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing (New Video Group DVD), in which arthouse enfant terrible Vincent Gallo plays... a Taliban fighter. Never given a name and, in fact, given no dialogue whatsoever, Gallo's character blows up three Americans in the opening scene and is quickly captured and transported with other captives to an unnamed snowy Eastern European country, presumably for indeterminate holding at a so-called black prison. But an accident allows Gallo a chance to escape, putting him on the run—barefoot, at first—through unfamiliar frigid forest, thousands of miles from home, with squads of soldiers, dogs, and helicopters on his trail.

More reactionary American viewers will no doubt have a hard time with aspects of this film. Not only are a number of Americans/Westerners killed, but live Americans are typically portrayed as callous brutes fond of drugs and thudding bro metal—the kind of reductive vilifying that Islamic viewers of American films must be used to by now. Then again, the waterboarding scene makes American forces seem pretty unsympathetic with no cinematic license whatsoever. None of this would matter if Skolimowski (who co-wrote) hadn't crafted an existential action film rather than a polemic. From the moment Gallo's character first spies the Americans in a narrow desert canyon through to the film's end on a snowy ridge, Essential Killing rarely stops moving, putting Gallo's character into one brutal survival scenario after another. And he struggles ever forward, through pain and privation, despite the micron-thin chance he has of ever making it home. Gallo has never been particularly likeable onscreen, but "like" has nothing to do with his all-stops-out physical performance here as he embodies the pure human limitations of flesh and blood versus the will to overcome and stay alive, if only for another five minutes. It's a performance, and a film, that you have to respect.

The Afghanistan War hasn't spawned many other fictional features yet, and it hasn't come close to rivaling the number of documentaries the Iraq War has spawned. That said, last year's Restrepo immediately topped the pile of GWOT docs with its depiction of U.S. troops dealing with the madness and stress of a combat tour. Despite its blood-and-guts title, Danfung Dennis' Hell and Back Again (Docurama DVD and Blu-ray) takes a somewhat more objective look at the Afghanistan conflict and its aftermath in the life of one injured Marine.

Dennis' objectivity is not a matter of lack of access. He and his camera went on operations with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, shadowing the mud walls of Afghan farms and diving into the dirt when live fire zips overhead. He's also right there in the North Carolina home of Echo Company's Sgt. Nathan Harris as he recuperates from a bullet wound he received near the end of the tour. Dennis is not only there when Harris and his wife Ashley go to the doctor or to Walmart, he's also there when they go to bed at night and there when they wake up, there in proud moments and difficult ones.

Dennis hits on an ingenious structure for the film, alternating the beginning of Echo Company's tour in Afghanistan and the beginning of Nathan Harris's recovery, a month after coming home, and paralleling the two from there. Thus the filmmaker can cut back and forth between the frustrations of brief firefights with elusive Taliban and stalemate interactions with Afghan villagers (the Marines want to help, while the Afghans want the Marines to help by leaving) with the frustrations of the slow healing process and re-entry to civilian life. Harris is a no-nonsense leader in the field; back home, he's physically humbled and psychologically and emotionally mercurial. He brings a Ziploc bag full of prescriptions with him everywhere, he plays with a pistol more than seems necessary or wise, and, faced with a shopping-center parking lot bulging with cars, at one point wishes aloud for the simplicity of life in war-zone Afghanistan. His wife tends him, smiles tightly, and endures. There is no narrative pushing forward the fits-and-starts chaos of Echo Company in combat, and there's no narrative resolution onscreen to Harris' struggle back home. Just patient observation of events foreign and domestic that will shape our country for a generation to come, whether we otherwise notice it or not.


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