Americans may be tired of being at war but they’re not tired of war movies. The Oscar-winning Hurt Locker on Iraq in 2008 and 2010’s award-winning Restrepo, a documentary on Afghanistan, provided day-to-day grit in what no one anymore likes to call the war on terror, and both showed why that’s exactly what it is.
The Hornet’s Nest (rated R for language) follows similarly in its gritty portrayal, bringing to life in real-time footage Operation Strong Eagle 3, a 2011 battle in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province that involved hundreds of Afghan and U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne. From the beginning we see what U.S. military personnel are up against: A cache of missiles turns up in village hideouts, and children are the victims of IEDs the soldiers try to thwart. Spc. Bret Kadlec hears a couple of Afghans whispering, only to discover “they were right in the trees above us.” The militants flip their weapons to fire, and “it was all pretty much chaos from there.”
War is chaos but a documentary about it shouldn’t be so hard to follow. The Hornet’s Nest struggles for narrative arc, plus makes the mistake of casting the journalist-narrator rather than the soldiers in the leading role.
Veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher takes with him on this particular military embed his estranged son Carlos. That in itself could be a story. But despite Boettcher’s overwrought narration, we rarely see the two together once they make it to the airport, and there’s no tangible resolution in the relationship.
Likewise, so many soldiers are shown so fleetingly it’s hard to track their stories in what proves to be a costly battle. In the end everyone comes off one-dimensional, from soldiers with their expletive-laced camaraderie to the Afghan villagers all out to betray them to the journalist who can’t keep himself on the sidelines, where he belongs.
Americans present and future could appreciate more documentary film work about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—but as stories worth telling, not shoot-outs cut and pasted together.