Let’s not mince words. Mike and Carlos Boettcher’s “The Hornet’s Nest” is on the short list of the greatest combat documentaries of all time.
It’s an experience that will scare you, inspire you and quite likely leave you in tears. And no matter what your views on the origins, prosecution or morality of the War on Terror, it will leave you awed by the dedication and bravery of our fighting men.
TV journalist Mike Boettcher has spent nearly three decades shooting and reporting on wars around the world. His dedication to the job led to the breakup of his marriage and long separations from his children.
As “The Hornet’s Nest” begins, Mike and his now-grown son Carlos team up to record the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan for ABC News. Mike tells us he is both gratified and wary…it will serve as an opportunity to bond with the son whose childhood he missed, but it will also put that son in harm’s way.
That parent/child dynamic, which percolates just below the film’s surface, gives a bit of personal urgency to “The Hornet’s Nest” — particularly when Mike believes that Carlos has been killed or wounded by Taliban snipers. But it really isn’t the documentary’s driving force.
The real subjects are the uniformed men (some seem mere boys) who go about their dirty jobs in front of the Boettchers’ cameras.
A few soldiers appear in talking-head interviews, but “The Hornet’s Nest” is less about individuals than about how a military unit goes about its job.
The men with whom the Boettchers are embedded are consummate professionals — well trained, motivated, and dedicated to the job. Even in horrifyingly scary situations, they maintain an almost superhuman calm. They may swear, but they don’t panic.
Why do they do it? Mike Boettcher tells us that once in the field, questions of politics and policy are irrelevant. These men fight for each other, he says. It’s Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” in desert camouflage.
Unlike the Vietnam-era GIs, often depicted in film (“Platoon”) as devolving into war criminals, these Marines appear utterly protective of the Afghan civilians they encounter. It’s possible that the Boettchers have emphasized only the most altruistic and humanitarian aspects of the mission, but I don’t think that’s the case. The prevailing attitude here is of winning hearts and minds through decent behavior (an unforgettable segment depicts the efforts of the Americans to save an Afghan child wounded by a Taliban IED).
“The Hornet’s Nest” captures the drudgery of a grunt’s life – marching for days in 100-degree heat while carrying 80 pounds of equipment, fooling around on base.
But more than any documentary in recent memory, this picture captures the adrenaline rush of combat. This is no Hollywood facsimile. It’s obvious that the Boettchers are in the midst of the action, capturing the angry whiz of incoming rounds and the methodical answer of American guns. The cameras mounted on the journalists’ helmets allow us to see just what they see…whether it’s an awesome air strike on a Taliban position viewed from a mile away, or a close up of the dirt in which they lie face down while the lead is flying.
The film’s final 30 minutes is devoted to a mission during which Mike Boettcher and the Marines were surrounded on a rugged hillside and endured a siege of several days. They don’t emerge unscathed.
In fact, the soldiers about whom we learn the most are the ones who die, with the film providing a sort of “in memorium” with photo and video montages of the deceased.
Bring your hankies.