The Hornet’s Nest Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud Propaganda billed as a documentary manages to make war boring.

Cut on the Bias: File The Hornet’s Nest under “war propaganda.”

The filmmakers behind The Hornet’s Nest have achieved a nearly impossible task: They’ve made war boring.

But how? The elements that typically make war such great fodder for cinema—ethical dilemmas, action, tragedy— are all there in the documentary, and directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud even add the poignancy of a father-son drama into the mix. So why does The Hornet’s Nest fail? Mostly because, in working so hard to manipulate its audience’s view of war, it loses all sense of reality.

If the filmmakers were interested in telling a true, compelling story of war, they certainly had the material for it. The Hornet’s Nest follows esteemed war correspondent Mike Boettcher (one of CNN’s first reporters at the network’s launch in 1980), who, when embedded with American troops in Afghanistan for a year, is burdened with an extra assignment: protecting his teenage son from harm. After years of neglecting his family to cover events in war-torn corners of the world, Boettcher brings his son Carlos to the war front to show him what his father does for a living—like some kind of misguided Take Your Child to Work Day. The two spend several months together in a dangerous area of Afghanistan, documenting numerous firefights, including a climactic nine-day battle with Taliban fighters that held tragic consequences for several soldiers.

Despite this intriguing set-up, the film fails at its most basic levels. For starters, the elder Boettcher has trouble earning our sympathy. He tells us, “one thing [he] can’t allow to happen” is for his son to come to harm, but it’s hard to feel bad for a guy who willfully brings his child to one of the most violent, chaotic places on Earth.

Still, the very real specter of danger never really comes through the filmmakers’ heavy layers of artifice. Boettcher narrates the action with dialogue that feels scripted and melodramatic, while the filmmakers overlay the action with a cinematic Hollywood score that wouldn’t feel out of place in an ’80s action flick like Die Hard or First Blood. The intent may have been to ratchet up the drama, but it has the opposite effect: The palpable sense of reality so easily captured by the raw footage is obscured by a series of gimmicks.

In its press notes, The Hornet’s Nest is billed as “an action/drama made with 100% real footage” and a “groundbreaking and immersive feature film.” It’s never quite clear what this means, but there is another phrase that accurately describes the film’s genre: war propaganda. The Hornet’s Nest paints a glowing portrait of the troops, but it’s also hopelessly narrow, avoiding any complexity or nuance. It’s not just that it doesn’t ask the hard questions; it doesn’t see anything worth asking about.

Despite increased skepticism of military action among the American public, pro-war propaganda does still have an audience—see the success of this year’s Lone Survivor for evidence. One-sided documentaries are an even tougher sell than feature films, because they’re so easy to criticize, but The Hornet’s Nest’s rallying cry would be easier to swallow if it were better at arguing it. Effective propaganda hides its true nature. The Hornet’s Nest never lets its viewers forget that they’re being manipulated, so it’s almost impossible to care about the events depicted onscreen. A harsh reality check has never seemed so fake.

Our Readers Say

Can't believe you would call a REAL war boring! A war where real people die, but obviously that is not enough to peak your interest!
Can't believe you would call a REAL war boring! A war where real people die, but obviously that is not enough to peak your interest!
Mr. Gittell,

Your article is terrible and I think you need to do a little research on the film. War propaganda? Really. It's about a unit's experience in Afganistan and in no way is it propaganda. Soldier's that are dying in combat is boring to you. You should be ashamed of yourself and I cannot believe that you would be allowed to write this crap. I really hope you never procreate because it's people like you that's making this country go to shit.
What a pos. You want to my best friend's father that this movie to describe life in Afghanistan. You want to tell him that this movie "failed" and it "made war boring". It's to bad Dave can't comment on this since he died in Afghanistan. It is not my fault you do not have the courage to sign a blank check which would cashed at some point in time for your life. You need to rephrase and recheck yourself. You are the the problem with civilians and why we still have issues in our country. Instead of bad mouthing a documentary that portrays life on Afghanistan and shows your fellow Americans dead and their story. I would suggest that you just pass a long reviewing anymore. You are fake. Don't put our military in another article you write, you don't rate too.
You are taking this authors opinion about a film and projecting it onto the war. He is not critiquing the war or saying that war is boring. He said quite the opposite. I'm not saying I agree with him, but it is a sad state when even light criticism of something war related invokes such excited emotional responses.

And yes, his criticism is light. He didn't say the director is a talentless hack. He basically said, the director documented subject matter that is already so emotional and shocking, that it is made it less so, by trying to coerce the audience into feeling certain emotions and not asking the hard questions about war.

Saying that the soldiers need no cinematic crutches or added drama to be interesting is a compliment to our troops. As for the director, he did what he openly intended to do. He intended to make a dramatic feature film out of documentary footage. Most documentaries don't rely heavily on score, don't push for personal narrative, and don't try to push the audience towards specific conclusions, but instead present them with information and allow them the responsibility of gathering meaning.

Like I said, this director openly intended to make a feature film, and went into it with the purpose of making viewers thankful to the troops. While the reviewer found this to be an attempt at manipulation, many others found it commendable. I doubt the director is less than pleased by the outcome, so let's not chew off the reviewer's head or put words into his/her mouth for feeling otherwise.

This is why we will never have rational dialogue about the war. Any hint of skepticism, on any level, is misconstrued as being ungrateful.

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