The selling point of The Hornet’s Nest, a documentary about combat troops in Afghanistan, is that the film purports to show what serving in the military is really like. That may sound like the movie is willing to take risks, or mimic the down-and-dirty approach of the 2010 doc Restrepo, but it isn’t—the film paints all its subjects as more or less the same: smiling good ol’ boys with a hivemind and little personality. There’s a good deal of sympathy for the risks the young men are taking, but The Hornet’s Nest is exactly the version of the military that the military wants people to see, which means all its earnestness can’t help but feel calculated.
The movie follows father-son reporting team Mike and Carlos Boettcher as they embed themselves with troops for a year in 2011, filing stories for ABC News. Among other events, they filmed Operation Strong Eagle III, one of the deadliest battles of the war. That operation is the climax of the movie, as the U.S. battalion plans assaults on Taliban forces that go awry when the enemy gains the upper hand in the hilly, punishing terrain. The filmmakers balance out this thicket of combat with other, quieter moments in Afghanistan: coming across a Taliban bunker filled with explosives and heroin, saving the life of a child injured by an IED, goofing around with farm animals.
Directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, who assembled the footage, can claim a certain amount of authenticity by default: they profile real soldiers traversing real terrain with no re-enactments, and there’s a sensory verisimilitude once bullets start whizzing by in the heat of battle. A sequence cutting between Mike and Carlos’ separate vantages of the same firefight is a wonder of accidental minimalism—each of them can only see grass, sky, and flashes of soldiers. But the movie is all high-gloss surface sheen. The filmmakers don’t bother to dig into the psychology of their subjects, or even get to know them as anything more than symbols. Several times, they explore soldiers’ backstories only just before or after the Taliban kills them. There are no substantial discussions of tactics, barracks life, homecomings, or any other topic that might have lent some color to the proceedings. Memories of everything but the battles and the deaths start to fade as soon as the lights go up.
Even the raw footage can feel undermined by the packaging, which reeks of artifice. The Hornet’s Nest is a hype machine for itself, with a harried editing style and incessant, thoroughly obnoxious musical cues signaling both combat footage and onscreen casualty counts. Salzberg and Tureaud seem unwilling to trust that audiences would find daily life in the armed forces exciting enough on its own. And why give the film’s only narrative thread to the Boettchers, when their cameras are capturing far more compelling individuals? The false drama built around Mike and his son—will they survive the deployment? Will they grow closer to each other?—grows old quickly, and carries the grating sense of self-promotion. Meanwhile, the soldiers themselves, most only in their early 20s, are apologizing to each other as they lie dying in battle. They don’t need viewer surrogates.
All that aside, there’s still value to any production that asks Americans to think about what happens in war zones in their name. The film’s conclusion takes the time to salute everyone who died in Strong Eagle III, one by one. By the standards of any other documentary, this scene would be a mawkish display, particularly grating because the filmmakers haven’t given viewers the opportunity to know any of the fallen they’re now asking the audience to mourn. But in light of how incompetent the Department Of Veterans Affairs has become at caring for the ones who actually make it home, the extended memorial will mean something to those who’ve served: a reminder that, despite all evidence to the contrary, their country doesn’t entirely lack gratitude. After a screening of the film for mostly military personnel in Washington, D.C., one veteran who’d lost his leg in combat and fought depression on the homefront told the crowd that working on the movie saved his life. That’s something worth doing.
The ideal way to view The Hornet’s Nest is over Memorial Day Weekend, sitting next to a friend or family member from the military who can provide some humanity as a counterpoint to the film’s flashy advertising. But first, infiltrate the projectionist’s booth and destroy the sound system.