The Hornet’s Nest documents two years Mike Boettcher spent embedded in Afghanistan with two Army units. (Courtesy)
As a journalist, one of the riskiest things you can do is embed with an active, deployed military unit. Apart from the all-consuming risk of death or injury on a 24-hour basis, there’s also the risk to objectivity. How can you possibly remain unbiased when, formally or not, your subjects are often protecting your ass as well as their own?
For years, veteran broadcast journalist Mike Boettcher (‘veteran’ as in, helped start CNN veteran) has taken all the risks associated with wartime reporting and he’s come to the conclusion, expressed in a September 2013 Reddit AMA that “I tell the stories of the people I’m with. Others can tell the other side.”
[Read this interview with Mike Boettcher]
Viewers should be aware of that angle before heading into Boettcher’s film The Hornet’s Nest, which documents two years Boettcher spent embedded in Afghanistan with two Army units from the 101st Airborne (included the highly decorated 327th Infantry) and the US Marine Corps’ 2nd Battallion 8th Marine Regiment. At the end of the film, these soldiers and marines are depicted as American heroes—quite literally as many of them are awarded bronze and silver stars for the operation from which The Hornet’s Nest draws its title. It’s even in the movie poster tagline: “Real war. Real heroes.”
Initially, this documentary seems quite similar to 2010’s Restrepo, in which Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Both begin in medias res, displaying immediately the intense, potentially fatal difficulties their subjects undergo on a daily basis. Both also strenuously avoid talking politics, mainly because the film’s subjects don’t seem too concerned about the larger context. After all, it’s hard to gab about the bigger picture when you’re under fire for nine freaking days, as Boettcher and the units in The Hornet’s Nest were during a battle known as Strong Eagle 3.
Where The Hornet’s Nest differentiates itself is in the unprecedented access Boettcher gives us, not necessarily to the soldiers and marines, but to himself and his family. Familiar with television, Boettcher often turns the camera on himself to give a running narration of firefights and missions. He also takes it upon himself to explain the presence of his son Carlos on this deployment. According to Boettcher, he wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest dad, and when Carlos, an adult of perhaps his mid-20s at the time, insists he will accompany Mike on assignment, Boettcher eventually acquiesces, looking for a silver lining of perhaps getting to bond with his son in a deadly war zone.
It seems to work, and there is much fatherly pride on display at rookie Carlos’ ability to excel in the harsh terrain of remote Afghanistan. Before things can get too sappy, Carlos leaves (he and Boettcher won an Emmy for their work together on that). Boettcher stays, just in time to capture Strong Eagle 3. This is perhaps as close to being “in the shit” as most of us will ever get.
At the advanced screening, the military members in attendance thanked Boettcher, who was also there, for capturing what they experienced so purely. However, civilians may yet feel disconnected, as the only constant and effusive onscreen presence is Boettcher himself. The many other men and women depicted still feel too far away and too abstract for the emotional connection that Boettcher and many others involved in this war wish the American people could forge.
The Hornet's Nest (R)
Dir. Christian Tureud, David Salzberg; feat. Mike Boettcher, Carlos Boettcher
Opens Fri, May 16 at Santikos Embassy 14