After a long string of films about sensational (and sensationalized) personalities, Brit docu provocateur Nick Broomfield’s recent stride into narrative filmmaking continues with “Battle for Haditha.” Younger viewers may not realize Broomfield’s dramatic re-creation of the November 2005 Marine massacre of civilians in Iraq is in a Blighty cinema tradition of you-are-there pics — stemming back to Peter Watkins as well as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” — and are likely to receive pic as a complicated but kick-ass war movie. Intense, fair-minded entry in the pileup of Iraq pics could draw more press ink than auds, but vid biz looks fierce.
Though pic’s unveiling occurs at the same time as that of Brian DePalma’s Venice prize winner “Redacted,” also about an atrocity committed by Yank troops in Iraq, they are differ considerably.
Politically, Broomfield’s is far more humanist and less strident, refusing to convey soldiers in blunt good guy-bad guy terms, while granting much dramatic space to the lives of civilian onlookers and insurgents –nonexistent in DePalma’s docudrama.
Latter’s use of vid-generated media is formally more daring, while Broomfield’s is a straight drama, lensed with docu-like immediacy.
Other than an opening on-screen graphic noting the killing of 24 Iraqis by the Marines’ Kilo Company in the hotly-contested city of Haditha, Broomfield avoids overt explanations in favor of plunging the viewer into the action. Three separate parties — a Marine platoon headed by Cpl. Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz), an everyday Haditha family, and Sunni insurgents Ahmad (Falah Flayeh) and Jafar (Oliver Bytrus) — are patiently tracked over the 24 hours leading to the tragic massacre.
The grunts describe Iraq as “a giant butthole on the body of the Earth,” but, for the most part, they’re seen in generally human and sympathetic terms. This is best embodied in Ramirez, a young man with considerable leadership qualities whose nights are so wracked by nightmares that, eventually, the stresses of extreme combat make him snap. Ruiz (like the other thesps playing Marines) is an Iraq vet himself, and the line between performance and experience is blurred to a fascinating degree with emotionally galvanizing results.
Casting and storytelling structure follow the model of Pontecorvo’s classic to fawning excess, but the fact that the viewer is put through the ringer of spending time with the bombers waiting to ignite their buried IED bomb, while also communing with Ramirez’s guys and the Iraq family led by wife Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) informs “Battle for Haditha” with universal insight and wrenching suspense.
Hiba’s family’s point of view of the terrorists planting the bomb just outside their compound cinematically captures what it must be like now for Iraqi innocents coping daily with a civil war and U.S. occupation.
Perhaps the starkest difference between “Battle” and “Redacted” is the depiction of Marine atrocities; DePalma’s outlaw soldiers engage in rape, pillage and murder, but the rapid, cold and ferocious onslaught of Broomfield’s enraged platoon is considerably more shocking and brutal. Suggestion here is that the massacre was done with the Marines’ unique level of professionalism, and it’s surely pic’s single most unsettling idea.
The parallels between the ways in which the Marines are used by brass, and locals are used by local clerics is perhaps too polemical by half, but it’s in keeping with Broomfield’s strategy to view the war in three-dimensional terms.
Thesps, most new to features (but not to the war itself), add a layer of realism that could have easily lapsed into dramatic showboating. Given their awareness of Broomfield’s track record as a maker of lurid docus, some auds might even momentarily confuse “Battle” with a docu, and the actors play a major role in creating this illusion.
Broomfield’s own non-fiction filmmaking isn’t characterized by vivid camerawork or verite style, and the physical demands of closely tracking three sets of characters (via lenser Mark Wolf’s HD video) shows detectable strain at certain moments. Nick Laird-Clowes’ standard-issue score is a major letdown.