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Battle for Haditha
(No longer in theaters)
At last year’s Virginia Film Festival, I met the director Nick Broomfield, there to show his freshly minted atrocity- of-war drama Battle for Haditha, and we talked a bit about the controversy over Brian De Palma’s uncompromisingly brutal Redacted— which also builds to the murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military personnel. The conversation was off the record and Broomfield was extremely circumspect. But it’s fair to say he saw a distinction between his own approach and that of De Palma, who rubbed our noses in the sadism of the killers. Now that I’ve seen the film, it’s clear that Broomfield’s take is closer to HBO’s The Wire, in that events are depicted from several different angles and no perspective is complete: The point is not to focus on individuals but the ways in which their actions feed the larger (diseased) organism.
Battle for Haditha dramatizes the (true) story of the roadside bomb that killed a U.S. soldier and the retaliation that took the lives of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children. Here are the salient points: The two men who plant the bomb hate Al Qaeda (which would kill them just for drinking alcohol) but hate Americans more—they disbanded the army in which the older man served and left him with nothing. The family that lives across the street from where the bomb is planted and know that it’s there have the choice of telling the Americans, in which case the insurgents will kill them, or saying nothing, in which case the Americans might kill them—or arrest them as collaborators and do who-knows-what. They can’t run because the outside world isn’t safe, but staying put could be just as deadly. The American soldiers, meanwhile, have a scary amount of unfocused energy: They’re always playing rough, hostile practical jokes on one another, and the corporal (Elliot Ruiz) who ends up doing most of the killing is beginning to buckle under all his bad dreams. He asks for counseling and is coldly refused. The message is “Do your job.” His murderousness is shocking— he’s a man possessed— but this is his tragedy, too.
Broomfield is known for documentaries, and his filmmaking here has a live-wire feel. The camera is hand-held but never ostentatiously quivery: Its restlessness conveys its characters’ chaotic emotions. You get edgy alongside the Americans as they scan buildings for snipers. You wince for the Iraqis roughly pulled from their cars and searched, rifles pointing in their faces. (To think we get indignant about taking off our shoes at airports.) You exhale in anticipation with the bombers on the balcony of an apartment complex, looking up and down the road below for signs of an American convoy.
The bombers’ bitter talk as they finger the cell phone that will trigger the explosion is a little “on the nose”—the movie has too many thesis lines. But even when the dialogue is stilted, the acting and directing take the starch out of it. Battle for Haditha has some of the raw energy of Sam Fuller’s war pictures, which weren’t subtle but left you energized by their ambivalence (there was no good or evil). It’s a hell of a picture.