Nick Broomfield, known for his unseemly documentary portraits of Aileen Wuornos, Heidi Fleiss, and Courtney Love, brings a surprising dose of compassion to his third dramatic feature, an engaging Iraqudrama that straddles the line between blistering exposé and Spielbergian heart-tugger.
Battle for Haditha recounts the events leading up to and taking place on November 19, 2005: Following a roadside bombing that killed one U.S. Marine, American soldiers murdered 24 civilians—including six young children—in what should have been a standard house-clearing operation in Haditha. The town, as one resident laments, used to be a happy honeymoon destination, but now goes by the name “City of Death.”
Broomfield cross-cuts between the soldiers, the insurgents, and the victims, building suspense and sympathy for all involved, as the killing time approaches with overdetermined inevitability. While less sensational and more humanistic than Broomfield’s past work, the director’s intentions are no secret: In a brief scene that scolds Army policy, we learn that Corporal Ramirez (played with powerful conviction by former U.S. Marine Elliot Ruiz) suffers from nightmares but won’t be provided mental-health care until after he leaves Iraq. The Al Qaeda recruits are regular guys next-door—one sells DVDs to U.S. soldiers; the other is a former member of the disbanded Iraqi Army, whose lost job (thank you, Paul Bremer) leaves him few options. They fear the fundamentalism of their bosses, but are happy to take $500 in cash and a gallon of gasoline in exchange for a tutorial in IEDs. And the collateral damage is composed of an all-too-beautiful extended family, including two passionate lovers and a cute infant boy who adores chickens. They may be humanized, but they’re also idealized, which, as warm and evenhanded as it may sound, reeks of simplification.
Despite its handheld vérité-style, the film is not a docudrama (its script and character shorthand obviously point to old-fashioned narrative). But Broomfield uses his nonfiction background to help flesh out the moment-to-moment reality of the re-enactment. Unlike the clumsy, ham-handed acting in Brian De Palma’s Redacted, the improvised scenes on base yield credible moments of military camaraderie and frustration, notwithstanding a few overly pointed anti-war jabs (“The Marine Corps doesn’t care about you! The country doesn’t care about you!”). The credit goes to Ruiz—now a professional actor, who nearly lost his leg in combat at age 17—that the film’s most atrocious acts become almost comprehensible. The film’s lone bad-guy stereotype belongs to a salamander-like muckety-muck at U.S. Marine headquarters in Camp Ramadi, who orders indiscriminate kills off satellite-fed TV screens.
Mostly, though, Broomfield wants you to like everybody A jubilant circumcision ceremony offers a sensitive glimpse into Iraqi culture, and a discussion among neighborhood women conveys the grim catch-22 of their plight: If they inform the authorities about the IEDs, the terrorists kill them; if they don’t, they’re cooperating with the terrorists and rounded up like them.
Veterans of Iraq War cinema might recognize some familiar elements—the heavy-metal machismo of Gunner Palace, the confessional testimonials of The War Tapes, the cri de coeur of Stop-Loss. When the shit finally hits the fan, though, the results are more emotionally bruising than many of Haditha‘s predecessors. (In one nightmarish moment, the camera drops beneath a bed to reveal a child’s-eye view of monster-sized boots and rapidly falling machine-gun shells.) Then again, the film’s affective power occasionally bubbles over into the manipulative: Is the serene appearance of a flock of sheep during the film’s climactic catharsis over-the-top or genuinely moving? For a film supposedly based in real life, such grace can sometimes get in the way of truth.
The preached-to choir that will make up the film’s viewing audience can surely forgive Broomfield for showing his hand, as perhaps they should—one more film that enrages someone, anyone, to do something to stop the war is welcome. But Battle for Haditha leaves us with a final celestial call for peace that feels all too hopeful, as well as especially out of place coming from a filmmaker more experienced in confrontation than reconciliation.