Since the Iraq war fatefully began half a decade ago, its fallout has inspired a slew of thoughtful, well-crafted narrative, documentary and docudrama films such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight, and Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo, respectively. In Battle for Haditha, which dramatizes the events culminating in the November 2005 slaughter of two dozen Iraqi civilians by American marines, director Nick Broomfield attempts to join this deep onscreen conversation but achieves something much more dubiously unusual—the first Iraq war B-movie.
Which isn’t to say Broomfield, a British documentarian known mostly for his coveting of the American sensational, from serial killers to rock stars to S&M, didn’t set out in pursuit of a noble cause. His good intentions are there, such as casting real Iraqis and ex-marines, including star Elliot Ruiz, a former corporal injured fighting insurgents in Tikrit. It’s his narrative chops that fall short. What should have been an edge-of-your-seat tale of soldiers and civilians facing life and death situations each minute of every day—and the psychological toll taken from living under such conditions—is instead a tedious, clichéd mess.
Inexplicably, the biggest problem with the film—its formulaic undeveloped screenplay loaded with clumsy, unnecessary exposition—would seem like an easy fix. Hire a screenwriter. It’s one thing for a director to use untrained actors, quite another to pair that choice with an untrained writer (Broomfield himself, along with fellow non-screenwriters Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford). The results are scenes of heavily improvised dialogue going nowhere, like the one in which we get to know Colonel Ramirez via Elliot Ruiz’s real-life back story. Ruiz is a good-looking charmer and I’m sure he’d do just fine in the hands of another director, but Broomfield does nothing more than stick him in a bunk beside other marines and have them stiffly shoot the shit. “Why did you join the army?” one guy asks. “To get out of Philly,” Ramirez replies.
What follows is the “poor lost kid searching for direction winds up in the hands of the military” story we’ve heard a thousand times before. In press notes Broomfield has said, “The passion and feeling in the film is real and the main task as director was to create these environments and spaces for the people to be themselves.” No—that’s the job of a documentary filmmaker, exactly where Broomfield goes wrong! A narrative director should indeed get out of the way—when using trained actors who know what they’re doing. With untrained thespians it’s the exact opposite. The job of the director in this case should be to guide—to direct! And because Broomfield, a narrative novice, chooses to let his first-time actors loose, he ends up with scenes straight out of freshman year improv class at NYU. Ruiz and his co-stars merely seem to stumble along awkwardly until Broomfield calls “cut.” I was almost waiting for the requisite follow-up critique. Even Ruiz’s best moment, a heartfelt breakdown in the bathroom that I’m sure erupted from true emotional experience, is nothing more than Strasberg technique caught on film.
And this goes for the Iraqis as well, who are forced to utter lines like “These Al Qaeda guys are crazy!” and “We will kick them out of Iraq just as we did the British.” Couple this with the requisite news footage of Bush spouting nonsense, the heavy metal blaring from Humvees in the desert, cinematography that alternates between long shots of buildings and street scenes to handheld close-ups and back again, and editing that shifts linearly and predictably between the three stories (Captain Ramirez and his comrades, the bad guy insurgents, and the good civilian Iraqis) and you’ve got a real snoozer. (One soldier even warns another, “Don’t fall asleep!” Yeah, thanks for reminding me.) Werner Herzog’s own addictive curiosity could make the unlocking of a handcuff thrilling in his war pic Rescue Dawn. When Broomfield trains his lens on an IED being assembled it’s merely yawn-inducing.
And in the rare moments where Broomfield does have a novel approach, he waters it down by hitting us over the head. The hypocrisy of two-faced Iraqis selling DVDs to soldiers before closing shop for the day to help out Al Qaeda, of secular sympathizers drinking alcohol and then reaching for the breath freshener before meeting with religious insurgents, devolves into melodramatic scenes like a roadside bomb being planted in front of a good Iraqi’s house. (At first I mistook the house for one belonging to an insurgent—even the bad guys are accidental victims of their own horror!—before realizing that Broomfield hadn’t in fact dug that deep.) Subsequently, “There’s a bomb in front of our house. What should we do?” is repeated in no less than three different scenes. As is the theme of no hope (“We’ve got no water, no electricity!”) and the dissolving of the Iraqi army (“I was in the army for my country, not Saddam!”) In fact, every tired Iraq war, “American government sucks” cliché finds a place in Broomfield’s film. “Doesn’t the corps help you out when you get hurt?” a naïve young marine asks Ramirez. (I’ll let you guess his answer.) When Ramirez himself asks to see a doctor for his nightmares he’s told, “Not till tour is over.” (And if you’re surprised by any of this then you’re probably not an American.)
With the high-pitched, one note tone of “I’m fighting for freedom!” and “Get the ragheads!” (enthusiastically shouted before the Marines inevitably set off on a mission to knock down doors and threaten people), an over-reliance on suspense music, screaming soldiers rounding up suspects (one innocent Iraqi actually has photos of his torture at the hands of insurgents), a doomed love story (“Let’s run away to Syria or Jordan,” a pregnant wife begs), a dying marine kissing the photo of his girlfriend, a sheik lecturing on martyrdom (and showing a recruitment tape featuring a coached Iraqi girl recounting the murder of her family), I started to wonder if Broomfield had ever met a stock character or idea he didn’t riff on. To say Broomfield isn’t a critical thinker is a vast understatement—and this does the very same people and ideas he’s trying to explore a massive disservice. By eschewing subtlety and nuance for the easy lines and simplistic images we’ve all heard and seen before (and much more eloquently) he’s turned the deplorable war and the many victims into over-the-top cartoons.
Broomfield is so focused on the desert he can’t see through the sand. Improvised lines like, “Where are the insurgents? Ask if he’s an insurgent!” and a corny scene in which a wife rushes to the body of her murdered husband—only to have a herd of goats, bells tinkling loudly, suddenly and incongruously appear like out of a Monty Python sketch—should never have made it into the film. Broomfield has created an Iraq war flick that squarely and sadly misses its mark. (If it’s straight shooting you’re looking for, skip Battle for Haditha and study “Rules of Engagement,” William Langewiesche’s exceptionally incisive account of the events for Vanity Fair.)
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design
Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.
In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”
Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.
Will Win: The Favourite
Could Win: Black Panther
Should Win: The Favourite
Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög
These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.
On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.
As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.
A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.
Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.
Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).
Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.
Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.
Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.
Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.
Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.
Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor
Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.
Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.
Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)
Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.
Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice
Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.