Nick Broomfield is a documentarian whose films are tremendously entertaining and admirably scrappy, usually focused on the intersection of celebrity and crime, taking on tabloid subjects with fearless bravado and genuine thoughtfulness. His documentaries of the last decade and a half (including Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, Aileen: Life and Death of A Serial Killer, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) have been a potent and often fascinating hybrid of investigative journalism, celebrity voyeurism, and kicking rocks to see the bugs scatter underneath.
But little of his previous work has been particularly political, or seemingly interested in the world outside of the tiny bubbles (Hollywood, the Seattle music scene, 90s hip-hop) he's investigated. So it is a bit of a surprise to see him take on the war in Iraq with his documentary-style drama Battle For Haditha. That might be for the better though, as the British pragmatist approaches the material with more of an interest in painting a full picture than a more partisan filmmaker might have.
Broomfield's film takes its inspiration from the November 2005 incident where a roadside IED killed a Marine and injured two more, resulting in the responding Marines killing 24 Iraqi men, women, and children. His cast is mostly non-actors, many of them infantry men who served in Iraq for the U.S. armed forces; instead of using a strictly defined screenplay, the actors improvised from an outline by Broomfield and collaborators Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford. As a result, the film has a loose, natural feel, with overlapping dialogue and a leisurely pace contributing (along with the now-requisite handheld digital video photography) to the documentary aesthetic.
The bulk of the running time is spent with the Marines, but just barely. Chief among them is Cpl. Ramirez (former Marine Elliot Ruiz), a Philadelphia kid whose strong voice of leadership tends to overshadow his relative youth. His is a fully-fleshed character, though the other Marines in the company tend to meld into a multi-shaved-headed bundle. The repetition and dullness of their daily routine (doing patrols, working checkpoints, cleaning weapons and talking trash) are seen flatly and matter-of-factly; they're guys, doing their job.
The strength of Battle For Haditha is that it is just as interested in the stories of the Iraqis--those innocent and not-so-innocent. Broomfield intercuts two other story threads with the Marines: that of Hiba (Yasmine Hanani), a young Iraqi woman preparing for a family celebration, and Ahmad (Falah Abraheem Flayeh), the father and husband who plants the bomb in exchange for a few much-needed dollars. Broomfield stretches the set-up longer than most films would; the first two-thirds of the film are basically the first act, with a literal ticking bomb awaiting the collision of the three story elements. It sounds lopsided, but Broomfield and his cast make it play, dwelling on the process of an attack, how the pieces fit together, how the set-up and pay-off occurs.
The violence, when it comes, is then all the more horrifying, as we've had the opportunity to observe these characters and form opinions on them (opinions which may or may not be borne out by their actions in the film's final half hour). Complexity is allowed for all of the characters--the Marines are clearly crossing the line, but they're not doing it in a blatant, obvious, "villainous" way (we want to understand their motives as badly as Broomfield does), while the three dimensions allowed for Ahmad are particularly noteworthy.
As Ahmad, Fallah turns in the film's most effective performance--it is his struggle and heartbreak that is, in some ways, the most devastating. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well; while Hanani is unexpectedly strong, some of the Marines veer over the top. Ruiz has some terrific individual moments, but his big speech is a little too on the nose, ringing a tad false at a moment where everything else feels all too real. Likewise, some of the dialogue early in the film (from both the Marine characters and Ahmad, as the voice of the insurgency) verges on the didactic; it seems written, even when we're pretty sure it isn't.
In spite of those flaws, Battle For Haditha is still well worth seeing; it is far more subtle, thoughtful, and effective than the thematically and aesthetically similar Redacted, though it doesn't quite manage the depth of HBO's brilliant Iraq mini-series Generation Kill , which remains the definitive ground view of the Iraq conflict.
Battle For Haditha arrives with a fairly impressive transfer of the film's 2.35:1 image. Cinematographer Mark Wolf shot the film on digital video (presumably for both budgetary and mobility reasons), but the video is clean, fluid, and remarkably film-like. Grain is (surprisingly) kept to a minimum, mostly present in naturally under-lit situations, while I was unable to detect any digital artifacts. The drawbacks of the video source are occasionally present (particularly in some of the slightly unnatural skin tones), but overall, this is a fine-looking disc.
Equally notable is the disc's 5.1 audio mix. Crisp, effective, and well-separated, it nicely spreads music and effects to the front and surround speakers while pushing the dialogue clearly to the center, with nothing lost in the mix. The dialogue-heavy first hour is pretty straight-forward from an audio standpoint, but the sound really starts to pop when the explosions and firefights begin near the hour mark. Dynamic and well-modulated, this is one mix that really puts the viewer into the action. A 2.0 stereo mix is also included.
We have special features a-plenty, though much of the bonus content falls under the quantity rather than quality heading. First up are a pair of scene-specific Audio Commentaries, one by director Broomfield, the other by actor Elliot Ruiz. Broomfield's is probably the disc's best extra, occasionally dry but very informative overall, with plenty of behind-the-scenes insight and thoughts on the events portrayed. Ruiz's commentary is less successful, with a bit too much describing and narrating, augmented by an abundance of pauses while Ruiz watches the film unspool.
Next up is a lengthy featurette, "The Making of Battle For Haditha" (51:11). This one is a bit of a mixed bag, with some interesting interviews and fascinating behind-the-scenes footage buried beneath too many lengthy clips from the film and interviews that run a bit too long. It's a good featurette, but it needed some judicious editing.
A pair of extended interviews with the film's soldiers-turned-actors follow--"A Soldier's Story: In Conversation with Eric Mehalacopoulos" (11:16) and "In The Line of Duty: An Interview With Elliot Ruiz" (20:37). Both men talk in depth about their backgrounds and lives as men in uniform; their stories are interesting, but they do ramble on a bit. Two "Casting Tapes" are also included, one for Ruiz (15:05), one for their castmate Andrew McClaren (09:57). These original audition tapes feature brief interviews and extended improvisations in Broomfield's office; again, they're interesting, but most viewers will reach for the remote before they've gone their full running time.
The film's well-constructed Theatrical Trailer (02:17) closes out the special features.
Battle For Haditha is potent and thought-provoking filmmaking, with an even-handedness that lends the events on-screen great power. It is also occasionally obvious and melodramatic, and its cast of largely untrained actors are unable to overcome some of its clunkier moments. Despite those reservations, this smart and well-made docudrama is still Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.