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.