Ever since that bloody, bluntly graphic opening battle sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, filmmakers have continually upped the ante in depicting in minute detail the thudding, horrifying brutality of up-close combat in warfare on the big screen.
But even the stark, gritty realism of that film and of such gut-wrenching recent war movies as “Black Hawk Down,” “Act of Valor” and “Lone Survivor” pales slightly in comparison to the real-life intimacy and breathtaking urgency of “The Hornet’s Nest,” an adrenaline-charged documentary that follows veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son Carlos into combat in 2011-12 with American troops on the front lines in Afghanistan.
Told almost entirely through the lenses of the Boettchers’ hand-held cameras, the film, produced and directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, discreetly avoids those horrendous, blood-and-guts shots of bullets rending flesh and of graphically agonizing death in battle.
But the jittery camera-eye view of soldiers lugging 80 pounds of gear over harsh terrain in 130-degree heat, of terse voices crackling over static radio transmissions, of the sounds of bullets whizzing past and thumping home (bullets make a buzzing-bee sound when they zip by the ear, we’re told) and of American troops pouring forth lethal bursts of ordnance at an elusive enemy, leave no doubt that the Boettchers, father and son, are smack dab in the middle of action. And through their intimate portraits of men and women in battle, the inevitable deaths that follow are all the more heart wrenching.
Mike Boettcher is an Oklahoma native who began his broadcast career at KWTV in Oklahoma City and has gone one to win a Peabody Award and six National Emmys in more than 30 years as a correspondent covering world conflict for NBC, CNN and ABC news organizations. His work as a globetrotting newsman posted to some of the world’s most dangerous outposts kept him away from home during his son Carlos’ formative years. And that is the impetus for the film’s first half.
That’s when Carlos, then an international affairs student at George Washington University, persuaded his father to let him come along as Mike was embedded with the 101st Airborne and the 8th Marine Regiment for operations in Afghanistan. Lugging his camera into battle and enduring some close scrapes under fire, Carlos got to know his dad and earned his own stripes as a correspondent (winning two Emmys in partnership with Mike) and, in one memorable sequence, created a heart-pounding moment of panic and doubt for his worried father.
The film’s second half follows Mike as he covers a particularly gnarly assault on the stronghold of a Taliban warlord in the Barwala Kalay Valley, and the nine-day siege – resulting in the deaths of six brave U.S. soldiers – that follows is as haunting and personal a depiction of modern warfare as you’ll find anywhere in cinema. “The Hornet’s Nest” deftly and honestly honors those men and women who serve, as well as those who boldly witness and record that service.
- Dennis King
“The Hornet’s Nest”
(Language, scenes of intense combat)