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deadCenter Film Festival Review: "The Hornet's Nest"

George Lang Modified: June 7, 2013 at 6:50 am •  Published: June 7, 2013

A hard-fought expertise informs Mike Boettcher’s “The Hornet’s Nest,” a wrenchingly visceral account of the 101st Airborne’s heroic efforts during the Strong Eagle III mission in June 2011. This is intensely personal reporting, a documentary that sees what Boettcher saw as he and his son, Carlos Boettcher, embedded with the No Slack Battalion during a series of horrific firefights in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Just think back to any major conflict or disaster of the past three decades: El Salvador, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, the battle against Apartheid in South Africa, Operation Desert Storm, the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, the Iraq War, Afghanistan. In all these human events, Mike Boettcher was on the ground, delivering the facts and telling the stories that might otherwise get lost.

A native of Ponca City and Oklahoma City resident, Boettcher has spent most of his career reporting for CNN, NBC and ABC, networks that require direct, two-to-three minute reports. But “The Hornet’s Nest” does not look or feel like anything seen on conventional television news: this film stays with its subjects long after most cameras get turned off.

While the primary focus is on the No Slack Battalion, the Boettchers’ interplay as father-and-son journalists adds a layer of personal investment and tension to the film. With cameras mounted on their helmets to capture it all, Mike and Carlos Boettcher go where the soldiers go, and the point-of-view shots at the dangerous heart of “The Hornet’s Nest” show, in some cases, near-death experiences. In this documentary, few sequences are quite as horrifying as a perfectly still helmet-mounted camera, lying at a slight angle after shots are fired in Helmand Province.

“The Hornet’s Nest” gets in tight and gets to know the men and women of the 101st Airborne, following them through every push into Al Qaida territory. During filming, six soldiers lost their lives. And in this time and place where fast judgment is everything, Mike Boettcher gives Carlos a crash-course in life-and-death reporting, a close-in look at why the father was not always there, or was merely a face on a screen broadcast from a more dangerous part of the world while the son was growing up.

Boettcher now splits his time between reporting for ABC News and instructing students in the essentials of war reporting at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism. But as “The Hornet’s Nest” attests, his teaching never stops, whether it is in a classroom in Norman or from a rocky hillside, direct from the longest-running war in U.S. history.

George Lang