By focusing the ambiguity of the conflict, Nick Broomfield reveals, at last, the true emotional impact of the Iraq War
By Armond White
Nick Broomfield isn’t a media star or critics’ favorite like Michael Moore, Ken Burns or Errol Morris, but he’s made some of the best recent documentaries in decades. In Driving Me Crazy, Biggie and Tupac and other films, Broomfield departed from the doc-star pack with their easy repetition of mainstream opinion and status-quo points-of-view. (I’d call him independent if that term hadn’t been corrupted already.)
Broomfield’s newest film, Battle for Haditha, is a fictional drama recounting the 2005 incident where American troops killed 24 Iraqi civilians in retaliation for an attack on a Marine convoy. But Battle for Haditha also has the virtues of an excellent documentary: Through close observation of the Marines, a pair of insurgent bomb-planters and an Iraqi family, Broomfield credibly shows how this tragedy could occur. He presents a range of the Iraq War experience that has never been effectively shown before.
Being a good doc maker (one who controversially placed himself onscreen yet avoided the dishonest “showmanship” and bias that have overtaken the form) gives Broomfield a rare ability to balance perspectives. He crosscuts from an American soldier’s experience to show an insurgent’s motives, then to a civilian family’s pathetic neutrality. Battle for Haditha refutes the idea that there is only one way to look at the Iraq War. Most remarkably, Broomfield understands the proper use of both “realistic” and “dramatic” modes.
Battle for Haditha doesn’t confuse tenses like Michael Winterbottom’s egregious In This World, Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart. One close-up image of Cpl. Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz) shows a young face both blood-spattered and acne-scarred; it shows Broomfield’s superb instinct for defining a personality without resorting to a slanted presentation of events. With cinematographer Mark Wolf, he knows when to keep wide-shot distance or close-quarters intimacy. He can juxtapose the insurgents cold-bloodedly planting an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) with a U.S. commander deploying a satellite sniper.
Although Battle for Haditha is certainly a plotted and arranged fiction, it is skillful and informative without corrupting our perspective via the techno-faddishness that undoes current filmmakers whether high or low, De Palma or Winterbottom. Through Broomfield’s technique, the actors’ improvisatory skills supply a deft sense of the war’s emotional reality. Fittingly, this is the best-looking Middle East movie since David O. Russell’s Three Kings.
The widescreen imagery is witty, it frames action in ways that attract deeper investment; we aren’t bullied into accepting “truth.” Broomfield asks that we recognize basic humanity: of scared young soldiers who must train, rouse and embolden each other; of disenfranchised Iraqi men who impetuously become rebels (“The Americans made the insurgency when they got rid of the army”); and of circumscribed civilians (“If we tell Americans, the terrorists will kill us. If we don’t, the Americans will think we’re insurgents. I would leave but travel is dangerous—we’re trapped.”)
Broomfield’s expositional dialogue is redeemed by the performers’ individual persuasiveness. Ex-marines Elliot Ruiz, Andrew McLaren and Eric Mehalacopoulos credibly inhabit the military moments, just as actors Yasmine Hanani and Duraid A. Ghaieb convincingly portray the married couple Hiba and Rashied. These characterizations—from angry G.I.s, to frightened children, to sexy conjugal intimacy—are as enthralling as any in the most revered Italian neorealist movies.
All this makes Battle for Haditha the film of the week. Its greatest breakthrough comes from Broomfield unabashedly portraying al- Qaeda characters while the rest of Hollywood fears facing this reality—as if following the Muslim prohibition against portraying Mohammad. (Bush bashers might take exception to Iraqi characters referring to insurgents as “terrorists”; but remember that Broomfield comes from the BBC tradition, which always portrays global politics differently than the U.S. media.)
This taboo-busting is an act of humane imagination; that’s what’s missing from one-way Iraq War films that condescend or propagandize. From Ramirez’ ribald war metaphor (“The body is Planet Earth, Iraq is a cornhole, the dingleberries are insurgents, the military is the turd going through”) to his tearful resignation (“After a while you become hardened, you become like them”), Broomfield offers the gift of ambiguity, yet he makes it clear that ambiguity is an effective point of fiction, not documentary.
While De Palma’s Redacted, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure and Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss went disastrously wrong, Broomfield’s sophisticated balance of fact and fiction in Battle for Haditha illustrates exactly how the Iraq War will enter popular memory—as legend.