For all the comic book mayhem thrust on summer movie audiences, there’s never a sense that anything’s at stake besides how much money the studios will bank. That’s what makes the new documentary The Hornet’s Nest – a movie about a real war, not one constructed of computer graphics - essential viewing to people crying out for substance.
Mike Boettcher is an Emmy-winning reporter for ABC News nearing retirement age who, as the film opens, is pondering how much time he’s spent in war zones far from his own backyard. The strain between him and his son, Carlos, isn’t irreparable but it exists, and the young man informs his father that he will accompany his dad to Afghanistan. Both end up toting video cameras and embedded with U.S. troops in the most volatile parts of the region, where they inevitably bond while dodging death.
In the Kunar Province, they and the troops they’re following come under fire in the film’s first five minutes. Shot mostly by the Boettchers, the movie puts the war at arms’ length; viewers can almost feel what it’s like to carry eighty pounds of gear in 130-degree heat, and come to recognize the sound a bullet makes when it whizzes by one’s ear. There’s a scary moment when the point of view from Carlos’s camera freezes and tilts, implying that he is on his side in the dirt, and all we hear is his dad frantically shouting his son’s name. The lens moves a bit and relief returns.
The second half of the film is a devastating trip into what Mike Boettcher calls “the heart of darkness.” In an insecure mountain region known as Barawala Kalay, the 101st Airborne, known as the No Slack Battalion, undergo what Boettcher says is the fiercest fighting he’s seen in his thirty years covering wars. They come under siege from well-hidden and well-fortified Taliban fighters across a valley, where every step makes them a target. When there is a brief lull to the shooting, the soldiers play with the native livestock, including a baby goat they name Roman.
The levity stops too soon. Several men don’t make it, among them Jeremy Faulkner, Bryan Burgess, Dustin Feldhaus, Ofren Arrechago, Frank Adamski, and Jameson Lindskog, a medic who his friends recall was dispensing medical advice as he was dying. Near the conclusion of the film (directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud), the audience is let in on a tradition steeped in tragedy: the shrines to the fallen made of boots, helmets, and rifles, and the empty responses to the roll call.