At once immersive and apolitical, “The Hornet’s Nest” offers a vivid up-close look at the carnage and chaos that define the day-to-day life — and death — of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. This gripping documentary about soldiers in harm’s way during America’s longest war seems all the more relevant as we begin the countdown to troop withdrawals from that war-torn land. But while timeliness could enhance its commercial appeal during limited theatrical release (where it faces some competition from Sebastian Junger’s Afghanistan docu “Korengal”), the film likely will have a long shelf life in home-screen and noncommercial platforms more because of its timeless qualities as a grunt’s-eye view of savagely and sacrifice in battle.
Co-directed by Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg, “The Hornet’s Nest” consists almost entirely of footage shot by Mike Boettcher, a TV correspondent who has spent more than three decades in various war zones, and his adult son Carlos Boettcher, who has in effect joined the family business. Early scenes none-too-promisingly suggest that the Boettchers may get in the way of their own story, especially when Carlos reveals why he’ s so eager to follow in his dad’s footsteps (“I need to know why you chose your work before us”). And even after Carlos returns home, Mike periodically intrudes with weighty pronouncements that, more often than not, belabor the obvious.
At its more frequent best, however, “The Hornet’s Nest” focuses intently on what the Boettchers saw and heard during several grueling months in Kunar Province, a mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan, while imbedded with the 101st Airborne. The soldiers, and the journalists with them, must remain constantly alert to threats posed by IEDs and suicide bombers — and ready to provide assistance to collaterally damaged innocent bystanders. (One powerfully suspenseful sequence depicts the desperate rush to save an Afghani youngster seriously injured during a roadside bombing.)
Everything leads to an attack — code-named Operation Strong Eagle III — on a Taliban stronghold in a remote Kunar valley. The battle, originally predicted to last a single day, stretches into nine brutal, bloody days as combatants exchange fire, casualties mount, and medical-support helicopters are unable to retrieve wounded.
Mike Boettcher drags the audience into the middle of this wide-awake nightmare, with sometimes steady, sometimes shuddering images of the fighting and the dying. Occasionally, there are bellicose shouts and bold proclamations that sound cribbed from war movies and videogames. (“Make shit start blowing up!”) But this is real life, and reality can be cruel and humbling. At one point, a medic is fatally wounded — but continues to advise how to treat other casualties as he breathes his last. Another soldier marvels: “He apologized for dying.”
“The Hornet’s Nest” doesn’t attempt to provide context or justification for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and rarely views Taliban fighters as anything more than largely unseen, almost abstract enemies. (All of which makes it even more jolting when the filmmakers include snippets of captured Taliban footage shot before and during battles.) Rather, Tureaud and Salzberg achieve their potent impact through the straightforward (but clearly admiring) observation of men who band together in battle and, in the film’s emotionally stirring final scenes, mourn their fallen comrades.