24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: War Movies

Sundance 2011: At war and at home in 'Hell and Back Again'

January 28, 2011 |  8:00 pm


In summer 2009, while photojournalist Danfung Dennis was embedded in Afghanistan with the Marines of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, a soldier handed Dennis his last bottle of water in the midst of a fierce firefight. That soldier was Nathan Harris, who would become the focus of "Hell and Back Again," a documentary Dennis made that screened Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

The intense fighting on the battlefield in the film is only part of the story. Wounded in an ambush shortly before he was to be sent home, Harris returned to the United States for physical therapy and recovery, but his battle was only starting. The camera follows Harris as he deals with physical pain and emotional trauma, and tries with his wife, Ashley, to move forward. The film moves back and forth between Harris in combat and back at home, giving a sense of the tremendous pull of battle on the psyches of soldiers.  

Speaking during a Q&A after the screening, Dennis described what brought him to shoot in such a dangerous environment.

"I've been profoundly moved by the images from past wars: World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda," Dennis said. "It's how our society views these very distant, complex battles. It's very easy to ignore them and look away and these images are a window into these places so we don't forget. These faraway wars become these abstractions, these ideas, that don't affect out daily lives."

"Hell and Back Again" has a surprisingly glossy, cinematic look, be it the bright sun of Afghanistan or the neon and streetlights of North Carolina. For his time in Afghanistan, Dennis designed a custom steadicam rig for the Canon camera he was using to capture video -- the shadow outline of the compact camera system can be seen in a few shots -- and he served as his own soundman.

The film has an intimacy and directness that brings a heightened sense of emotion to such everyday things as going to Wal-Mart or ordering take-out, as the rigors of fighting are contrasted with  the commonplace struggles of daily life. The film cuts directly from images of the firefight in which Harris was wounded to a drugstore parking lot at night, a transition that is shocking and disorienting, just as it must be for soldiers returning home.  

"When you come back from these places, it's very hard to switch these things off," Dennis said, "which I was trying to convey through that jumping back and forth between these two worlds, to really bring the war closer to home and show that it's just one experience, the fighting doesn't stop when you get back. This whole new battle begins, it's very psychological, very personal."

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Photo: "Hell and Back Again." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

'Apocalypse Now' Blu-ray sends Francis Ford Coppola back into the jungle

October 13, 2010 |  1:11 pm

Apocalypse Now

What’s it like for Francis Ford Coppola to go back into the jungle? “In some ways,” the 71-year-old filmmaker said with a warm laugh, “it feels like we never left.”

Next week, a massive new three-disc edition of “Apocalypse Now” arrives on Blu-ray with more than nine hours of bonus features and, more than simple cinematic celebration, Coppola’s intense participation in the project was a mission of legacy repair on several fronts.

For “Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure Edition,” Coppola not only went back to dig out photos and documents from the production of the 1979 fever-dream film, he also sat down with star Martin Sheen and screenwriter John Milius and interviewed them about their signature contributions to the Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s clear goal -– especially in the case of Milius -- was to share a spotlight that is often aimed only at the director.

“I hoped for people to learn more about John Milius and his true place in all of this,” Coppola said by phone last week.  “The big moments of dialogue in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ those lines people still remember, all those were hatched in the mind of John Milius long before I got hold of the script.... I wanted to give him his day in court, give him his due...”

Continue reading »

The Israeli 'Hurt Locker,' from the inside out

August 9, 2010 |  7:00 am


We were taken with "Lebanon," Samuel Maoz's Golden Lion-winning feature about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which opened in Los Angeles this weekend. In an article in Sunday's Times, we had the chance to explore Maoz's story: how as a tank gunner he saw things he couldn't imagine ever seeing, let alone living, and then suppressed the memories for more than two decades.

Foreign audiences crave films depicting the raw and unfiltered; it's a kind of experiential screen experience that the nightly news, and certainly the studio system, rarely captures. But like all film exports -- and especially that substratum of war-film exports -- the reaction inside the country doing the fighting is likely to be a lot more conflicted than the reception outside it. It's easy for Americans to unreservedly embrace "Lebanon," just as it might be easy for, say, Scandinavians to digest "The Hurt Locker." For those who fought the war, the truths depicted hit a lot closer to home.

With this mind, we asked one of The Times' correspondents in the Middle East, Batsheva Sobelman, to offer some insight on the native reaction to the film. Here is what she writes.

--Steven Zeitchik


"Lebanon." A single word, the title of a new film and, maybe, a code for something shared by Israelis, countless numbers of whom fought in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, with sporadic bouts before and after. To them, the word spells a world of contradiction: between a beautiful landscape and the ugliness of war, between purpose and futility, between military strength and human weakness, between the power of memory and the desire to forget.

Born of political sin, the Lebanon war was controversial in Israel nearly from the start. Israeli troops came for 48 hours and stayed for nearly 20 years. Israel pulled its troops out of Lebanon 10 years ago, but it's hard to get Lebanon out of Israel.

Over the last 15 years, nearly a dozen movies have treated different aspects of Israel's Lebanon conundrum, generally shifting from collective to the individual. The first one, 'Ricochets," was partially financed by the army itself and, with its one-dimensional depiction of an Israeli officer in the throes of a moral quandary, it showed. "Lebanon" is the latest attempt to exorcise residual demons -- and its raw subjectivity is a long way away from the early prototype.

Despite the international acclaim, the film met with a more reserved reaction at home. “Lebanon” won the Israeli Film and Television Academy awards in four different categories but sold only about 55,000 tickets, according to box-office estimates. Maybe it was eclipsed by higher-profile Oscar nominees; maybe it simply had the misfortune of being the third film about Lebanon in three years. Or maybe there’s a limit to how much reality people can handle in a country where the news cycle turns so viciously. In a place where the odds are high that any man between the ages of 25 and 60 has experienced Lebanon as a soldier, responses along the lines of “I’ve seen the original, I don’t need to see the movie” are not uncommon.

Israeli film has matured in recent years. Noting a series of recent movies about Lebanon (the list also includes the Oscar nominees "Beaufort" and "Waltz with Bashir"), film scholar Amy Kronish has said that these films illustrate a move within Israeli society "from the heroism of the earlier periods to a new understanding of the complexity and futility of war." Or as the poet Eliaz Cohen wrote, "Everyone has his own Lebanon."

It was more than 25 years before Maoz could bring himself to share with the public his personal experience in a collective trauma, the claustrophobic setting inside a tank a metaphor for his own memories trapped within him. Decades after he experienced it, Israel is still waltzing with Lebanon, one movie at a time.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: A scene from "Lebanon." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics


An Israeli soldier serves in Lebanon

"The Hurt Locker" sets off conflict

"The Hurt Locker": accuracy vs. entertainment

Betsy Sharkey's film pick of the week: 'Restrepo'

June 30, 2010 |  1:53 pm


Memo to all the fine-art film fans out there who have been resisting movies about Middle East war zones — yes, you “Hurt Locker” rejectors,  I mean you. Please don’t make the same mistake and overlook “Restrepo" and watch it get an Oscar nomination without you.

This excellent documentary chronicling a single U.S. platoon on deployment in Afghanistan in 2007-2008 is as insightful as it is visceral, and it could not be more timely given the contretemps over Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's harsh criticisms of the Obama administration’s Afghan ministrations and the general’s subsequent dismissal by the commander in chief.

Instead, “Restrepo” comes as something of a relief, told as it is from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground. Filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (best known as the author of “The Perfect Storm"), both veterans of covering other wars and working for Vanity Fair and ABC News for this one, worked side by side with the troops as they fought, in all spending five months in the deadly Korengal Valley over the course of the deployment, and the result is true cinema verite, sometimes a little too verite for comfort.

But ultimately the power of "Restrepo" comes from its namesake, Juan S. Restrepo, an Army private with swagger, shades and an infectious smile, mugging for the camera in the early scenes of the documentary. Restrepo is also the desolate outpost in Korengal Valley named after him. He was 20 when he was killed in a firefight not long after his company arrived in the summer of 2007, and the others did not want to forget. We should not either.

— Betsy Sharkey, Times film critic

Photo: Spc. Kyle Steiner of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd U.S. Airborne at Outpost Restrepo in Afghanistan. Credit: Outpost Films.

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In 'Tillman' and 'Restrepo,' a pair of Afghanistan movies that seek a place above politics

June 20, 2010 | 11:52 am


For many of us, the prospect of going to a movie theater to see a war documentary has about the same appeal as getting our eyebrows repeatedly plucked out by a pair of rusty tweezers.

But any thoughts of discomfiture should be thrown out the window for two Afghanistan films that play in Los Angeles in the next week: Amir Bar-Lev's posthumous portrait of a soldier in "The Tillman Story" and Sebastian Junger's and Tim Hetherington's verite look at a U.S. army platoon in "Restrepo."

"Tillman," which plays the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sunday, tells the ostensibly familiar story of former NFL player and fallen U.S. soldier Pat Tillman in an altogether fresh way. It's both blood-boiling and poignant to watch Tillman's family seek the truth about his death, as well as uncover the layers of Tillman himself (a man who enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotism, but who also read the anti-war writings of Noam Chomsky).

Tillma "Restrepo," which opens in Los Angeles this Friday, offers a somewhat more raw filmgoing experience but makes some equally powerful choices as it shows moments of both adrenaline and tedium experienced by a group of soldiers fighting in the Korengal Valley, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous battlegrounds.

Both films were eye-opening and at times jaw-dropping, which is why we were extremely taken with them at the Sundance Film Festival (click on the links for our take on "Restrepo" and "Tillman"), and why it's heartening to see a broader audience get a chance to watch them just five months later. They're worthy movies not only because they have something to say (that has too much of a tweezery sound), but because they're satisfying cinematic experiences.

We also caught up with the filmmakers for a Los Angeles Times story about the "Tillman" and "Restrepo" documentaries, and our interviews with them only reinforced our feelings about the films.

"Most of documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan so far have been political polemics, and I think the public is exhausted by them," Junger says. "What our films are trying to do is to make an investigation into some very necessary topics."

Indeed, neither movie seeks to take sides but rather aims to show the ambiguous and difficult circumstances of the war in Afghanistan. Of course, it's impossible to completely avoid ideology and political messaging, and "Tillman" in particular wades into political waters as it condemns the U.S. Defense Department for conspiring to spin the circumstances of Tillman's death for the sake of recruiting more soldiers (which is probably why the film has caught the attention of Michael Moore, who's called it "one of the most important movies you'll ever see about the U.S. military.")

Bar-Lev has split feelings about his movie's underlying themes. "I don't think of it as an antiwar film. I want people on the right and left to be open to engaging with it," he says. "I did want to make a film that said we should be honest about war and not cloak it in Hollywood mythology."

-- Steven Zeitchik



Casualties seen and unseen

Has someone finally made a good movie about the war in Afghanistan?

Michael Moore loves the Pat Tillman documentary, but will Middle America?

Top photo: A scene from "Restrepo." Credit: National Geographic. Bottom photo: Pat Tillman. Credit: Associated Press


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