The Hornet’s Nest Review

Posted: June 8, 2014 in Documentary, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

hornets-nestA soldier searches for an improvised explosive device (IED) using only his guts, his acumen, and equipment that looks like nothing more than a beachcomber’s metal detector painted Army green. We hold our collective breath as he sweeps over the gravel road that yields no trace of having been disturbed. Perhaps it’s a false alarm. Maybe the report from the local villagers was deliberate false intelligence. Then the soldier calls out that he has located the pressure plate. The IED is deliberately and safely detonated, and the convoy moves on. We release our breath and feel a rush of relief, but all the while the question, “What about next time?” gnaws.

Moments like that in The Hornet’s Nest, a new documentary about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, expose the artificiality and shallowness of Hollywood productions like The Hurt Locker. The ultra-light HD digital camera equipment that war correspondents, embedded with military units, carry into the field, to record every aspect of the soldier’s experience, may render the contemporary war movie obsolete. Following actual soldiers through a real mission from briefing to fire fight to aftermath carries a tension and emotional resonance that cannot be matched by the careful application of grime to a A-list star’s chiseled features while the special effect explosions rain down dirt clods, and the musical score swells.

Of greater significance on a societal level is whether documentaries which show war from a front-line perspective will have an effect on the support of the citizenry for military engagement. If, as claimed by many historians, televised images of anonymous American soldiers being lifted onto helicopters with grievous wounds were sufficient to undermine public approval of the Vietnam War, what will the consequences be when the line blurs and the foot soldiers become characters in our films? As we all know, not every foot soldier survives, and it always seems to be the special one who doesn’t come home.

The Hornet’s Nest is a good documentary. It is not a great one. The initial focus is on ABC News correspondent Mike Boettcher who is headed for a year-long assignment in Afghanistan, his latest tour in a career that has brought him numerous accolades including an Emmy, but has left him somewhat estranged from his family, including his son Carlos, who decides to accompany him on his assignment. The father-son bonding scenario set up by this introduction is the weakest part of the film. The relationship dominates the early going until the filmmakers, directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, rightfully turn the attention to the troops.

The elder Boettcher appears on screen in after-interviews that have a disturbing, tinny reality show feel to them. The documentary works far better when it shows rather than tells. The narration is often simplistic and obvious. In contrast, some moments that are captured seemingly by accident are genuinely amazing. An almost all-female helicopter crew (four of the five soldiers) are introduced after they participate in the evacuation of civilians following a suicide bombing. The ground troops thanking the crew speaks more eloquently to how women are integrated and accepted in combat situations than any voiceover could ever intone.

The film is sanitized. While the life and death nature of the experience is fully recounted, no fatalities are shown, and when the camera is on the wounded, it does not show the wounds. One can assume that the decision to exercise a certain restraint in editing was meant to avoid exploitation, but it has the curious effect of rendering war bloodless, and reduces the matter of surviving to an off-screen lottery.

Last week, leaders gathered as European and American citizens paid tribute to veterans of the assault at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The 70th anniversary of D-Day recognized an event that was cathartic not only within the struggle of that war, but also in the narrative in which we have framed that time in history. Good turned the tide against evil. It is almost impossible to imagine such a gathering seventy years from now in any part of Afghanistan. We dismiss such an idea by saying, “It’s not that kind of war”.

Yet, the heroism of the soldiers serving in Afghanistan as seen in The Hornet’s Nest is no less than that displayed by their predecessors during World Wars I and II and all the other “good” wars. This documentary succeeds in revealing that war at the ground level is personal. It is about family, the ones you are surrounded by and the ones waiting for you at home.  The movie may not be the tribute these soldiers deserve, but it – and other documentaries of its kind -may be the only one the majority of the public will ever see.

Three stars.

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