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.)