Battle For Haditha: Nick Broomfield great Iraq film
The war in Iraq has resulted in countless documentaries and features in the last 6 years which, like the war itself, have been ignored or simply shuffled away in that fat, dusty file in our brain marked: Things We Want To Forget About The Bush Administration. Not one film has achieved the success or provided the catharsis of a Platoon, an Apocalypse Now, a Full Metal Jacket, or Casualties of War, all of which appeared several years after the end of the Vietnam War.Perhaps too many enthusiastic moviemakers with too easy access to cheap cameras and reams of amateur digital footage simply could not wait for this war to be over to document it. The result has been a saturation of often well meaning but overly didactic, sentimental, and narratively unfocused movies, from fly-on-the-wall docs like Gunner’s Palace to the melodramatics of the mostly forgettable Stop-Loss. But I can count four movies, including one documentary, as must-see chronicles of the tragedy of our involvement in Iraq; and with the upcoming release of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, there may be a 5th to add to that stack. Of the four so far, the doc No End in Sight, In The Valley of Elah, Brian De Palma’s Redacted, and Battle For Haditha, it is this last one that I may have the most trouble shaking from my consciousness.
Battle For Haditha is shot and edited with a documentary’s feel for immediacy, but it is actually the first fictional work from British doc maker Nick Broomfield. The picture is a searing, troubling, and extremely sad summing up of all that is and was wrong with the war. Based on the true events surrounding the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqis, including many women and children, by US Marines in the town of Haditha on November 19th, 2005, the movie is the most unflinching account yet of what can only be called the tragedy of this incomprehensibly idiotic war.
Shot with hand-held cameras, starring several ex-Marines and Iraqi refuges with little acting experience, working with improvised dialogue, Broomfield has somehow managed to capture not only the confusion of war but also the convoluted and competing ideologies that made the events in Iraq a moral morass beyond the scope of most ordinary men and women, let alone the incompetents in the Bush administration who started the thing.
There is the story of former Iraqi soldiers, fired from their jobs by the invading Americans, who turned to the insurgency out of anger; there is the Iraqi religious zealot, more than willing to martyr his own people for a dubious consolidation of power; there is the Marine commander, nonchalantly ordering rocket attacks on faceless civilians from the safety of his high-tech headquarters; there are the Marines, 20 years old and younger, hot-headed, juiced up on death metal rap, with no mission it seems other than vague notions of revenge; and there are the civilians themselves, equally as frightened of Al Qaeda terrorists as they are of the marauding US soldiers. Broomfield also manages, deftly and movingly, to touch on the ticking time bomb of PTSD, and the blind eye the military leadership turned to this devastating problem that will haunt our country for decades to come.
Broomfield has accomplished all of this, while also turning out a gripping war picture. The revenge enacted by the marines on the Haditha civilians, supposedly in response to a roadside bomb that killed a single US soldier, is ugly and wrenching, impossible to fathom and almost as impossible to watch.
The star is a 20-year old unknown, Elliot Ruiz, a former marine, who here plays a corporal leading the attack on the civilians, a soldier troubled by nightmares, who vomits behind a tank one minute, and then puts on his war face for the massacre the next. The real corporal, promoted to sergeant, is still awaiting trial for negligent homicide; the charges against all other soldiers were dropped.
Broomfield, known in some circles as a sensationalist for his documentaries on Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rivalry between rap music’s Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, combines unapologetic commentary with an aching sensitivity to create, in my mind, what is the first truly great film to emerge from this sordid chapter in our history. Battle For Haditha is another must see that probably won’t be seen, but if you’ve got the courage, it is available now on DVD.