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Nick Broomfield's searing docudrama Battle for Haditha pulls no punches regarding its subject matter, a bloody incident in Iraq that became a mass slaughter. The British-made film's sense of authenticity leads us to think that nothing about the horrendous killing has been exaggerated, a scary thought indeed.
On the surface the movie might seem to be exploiting a much-publicized incident from November 19, 2005 in Haditha. U.S. Marines responded to a lethal I.E.D. attack on their convoy by gunning down 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children. But Battle for Haditha shows events leading up to the incident in a way that helps us understand how such atrocities take place. No viewer can walk away without having his perceptions altered.
Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield shot Battle for Haditha in Jordanian neighborhoods almost identical to those in Iraq, using Iraqi refugees as actors. The script is based on eyewitness accounts, and the high level of realism was obtained by using former Marines as actors.
The movie presents a negative image of the U.S. Marine Corps in action. Most of the Marines pictured are barely twenty years of age, including the nervous Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz) who gives the "kill anything that moves" order. The Marines are at risk whenever away from their base of operations, and are given little support from the chain of command above them. The officers back at base assume that every civilian is a hostile enemy and the official response to almost any disturbance is lethal force. When Ramirez asks for counseling because of bad dreams about the killing, an officer curtly tells him that he must wait until his tour of duty is finished. The implication is that too much of the war effort is concerned with public relations and image control. Fighting a war of occupation is especially difficult when the politicians back home refuse to come to grips with the reality on the ground.
Battle for Haditha also plots the progress of Ahmad (Iraqi actor Falah Flayla), a former Iraqi Army officer who takes pay from Muslim extremists to plant and detonate a roadside bomb. Ahmad hates the Americans for disbanding the Army and allowing his country to descend into chaos. Ironically, the extremists threaten Ahmad with death unless he stops drinking alcohol; their intent is to return Iraq to fundamentalist law.
Director Broomfield emphasizes that the civilian victims are ordinary people just trying to subsist. Pregnant mother Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) has a loving relationship with her husband and child and doesn't want to move out of the dangerous neighborhood because it would mean breaking up the family. When Ahmed starts digging by the side of the road, some neighbors do guess that a bomb is being planted. But if they tell the Americans, the insurgents will surely find out and murder them.
Few if any films have portrayed (or revealed) U.S. soldiers in such negative terms. Mostly fresh from high school, the Marines are the "rock 'n' rollers with one foot in their graves" of Apocalypse Now, molded by training to be merciless killers. They feel no kinship whatsoever with the Iraqis they are supposed to be liberating. Most cope with the pressure by adopting a nihilistic, hair-trigger attitude toward their work. "I can't believe we get paid to kill people", says one gung-ho rifleman.
When a roadside bomb kills a beloved buddy, Cpl. Ramirez goes ballistic. He executes five innocent Iraqis on the spot, in cold blood. When this action draws some rifle shots from a nearby hill, Ramirez sends his squads to "clean them out". The soldiers throw grenades into houses before blasting their way in, shooting old men, women and children. Two soldiers take pleasure in gunning down an unarmed man seen running down a pathway. The soldiers unload their pent-up hostility by killing everything in sight.
Meanwhile, the officers monitoring the action through drone-mounted TV cameras congratulate Ramirez for his retaliation against the enemy. One officer sees a video image of several men walking a few streets away, and arbitrarily decides to take them out with a drone-mounted missile. The push-button "bureaucratic" killing is done from the comfort of a remote bunker.
By any standard, the American reaction is grossly disproportionate. Ahmed observes the killing and voices his regret for his actions. His insurgent handler tells him that the Marine overreaction is a good thing: it will make ordinary Iraqis hate America even more.
The film doesn't cover the Army investigation, which exonerated all of the soldiers in the incident except one, and found no fault with commanders higher up in the ranks. When told that they will go on trial, the Marines are admonished to remember that their first duty is to the honor and reputation of the Corps, not to the truth. Battle for Haditha's disturbing message undercuts the official propaganda about spreading freedom and hope in Iraq.
Image's DVD of Battle for Haditha is an attractive encoding of an extremely well made movie. The Super-35 images are much better than one would expect for a docudrama and the show has a high technical polish overall. The making-of featurette and interviews highlight the contributions of the soldier-actors. Elliot Ruiz speaks contemptuously of being severely wounded in action, and then offered a pension at only 10% of his already low Marine pay. But another Marine says that, after appearing in the movie, he will be going back for another tour of duty.
Director Broomfield's commentary has a lot to say about the unusual filming circumstances in Jordan. Actress Yasmine Hanani explains that she participated in the movie because she deemed it important for Americans to see Iraqis as normal people with families and hopes for the future. The violent events depicted in Battle for Haditha are hopefully isolated incidents atypical of the norm in the Iraq conflict. But the movie convinces us that its picture of the attitudes and policies of the combatants is wholly accurate.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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