Lamenting that Nick Broomfield couldn’t muster a more rigorous, professional job of recounting the Haditha massacre in Battle for Haditha is like bitching about the technical deficiencies of a kiss or a death cry. This film is as simple as war is not the answer/only love can conquer hate. Too simple for those who prefer to rationalize the Iraq War with statements like “Nobody wants war, but…” Battle for Haditha declares that there is no “but,” not for anyone with a genuinely humanistic, pacifist pair of eyes.
“Nobody wants war, but…” is chanted in company break rooms, congressional halls, at bar stools, etc. But it is never uttered by the folks who find themselves huddled behind the sofa while projectiles carve up their living rooms and exotic gasses tear at their children’s lungs. Of course, we know that a lot of people do want war and have the juice to make it happen, but Broomfield doesn’t bother with them. This film is about those folks crouching behind the sofa, whose annihilation we deem a terrible necessity mainly because we’re still here. We’re still here. Think about that for a moment.
When I was 23 years old, just getting to know the world, a man in a sweathood came out from an alley and pointed a pistol at my head. It was around 1am. I turned and ran like hell, waiting to hear the blast and feel death. While I waited, I thought of all those I knew who had died in this ridiculous manner. Babies like me. I also thought, “This poor fool. If only he knew my life, knew who loved me and needed me, he’d probably drop the gun and fall to his knees weeping.” He never fired. I got away. Here I am.
Battle for Haditha says, here we are, the living, and there they are, the soon-to-be-dead. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a much more sophisticated sculpted-in-time requiem, have I been so moved by the spectacle of impending loss. Elephant made the ambient light and teen cacophony at play in the halls of a suburban high school as soothing as a pastoral song. Battle for Haditha has similar regard for light and life (if not so gentle a touch). A beautiful muslim woman peeling off her hijab (the balls on Broomfield, to unleash such an image in the climate of fundamentalist sexual hysteria) to make love and shower with her lover. A goofy G.I. smearing sticky candy all over his lips and teeth, going, “gimme kiss” to his comrades moments before his convoy gets blown to shit. The beguiling song and dance of a family whose local sheik has advised them to do what Bush or Blair would advise of their flocks: Go on with life as normal—despite the fact that a roadside bomb planted in front of their homes may (and in fact does) lead to their deaths in a retaliatory massacre.
When the massacre jumps off, Broomfield uses many of the hyperrealistic techniques of films like United 93 and The Kingdom but with far less prime time newsmagazine efficiency or Jerry Bruckheimer gusto. Broomfield, for all his documentary brashness, is dramatically a lazy slob, and that turns out to be exactly what this film needs to stand out as more than just the latest Iraq War term paper. Battle for Haditha gives us a pretty solid breakdown of the whens and wheres, but only a basic rough sketch of its characters. Broomfield lets his actors—mostly Iraqi refugees and Marines who lived through their own private Hadithas—take it from there. As filmmakers like Ulrich Seidl, Cristian Mungiu and Harmony Korine (among thousands of others) already know, this is the salvation of hyperinflated, supercompetent, plasticized contemporary cinema: placing non-actors (or actors who don’t “act”) in environments that extract the truth from them like a juice machine. In this case, the filming location is Jordan, where the roads and urban clutter resemble Iraq cities like Tikrit, Baghdad, Fallujah and, of course, Haditha.
There are moments that tear the flimsy articifice nearly to shreds, as when a Marine mechanically kisses a picture of his loved ones before putting it inside his helmet. “This is what I’m fighting for,” he drones with the mortified smirk of an 8th grader at a talent show. I imagined Broomfield just off camera directing this guy with a cattle prod. But this moment serves fitting notice that he will rest his film on the shoulders of real people. As in amateur porn, attempts at faking it don’t wash, but when things get real, they get real. The broad shoulders that Battle for Haditha ultimately settles upon belong to former Marine Corporal Elliot Ruiz. Ruiz’s character, Corporal Ramirez, is all Marine and all manchild. Combat trauma has prematurely chiseled his baby face into a sculpture of youth at the onset of adult moral awakening as startling as that of the slumlord’s son in La Promesse. Ramirez starts off on the quiet edge of a nervous breakdown, absorbing new jolts as he goes along which nudge him that much closer to implosion. Everything comes to a head in a barracks bathroom, where Ramirez delivers a broken soliloquy about the Marines with all the heartbreak that might linger within Ruiz himself, who was nearly killed in a Tikrit assault early in the war.
At this point in the film, Ramirez has already led the slaughter of 24 civilians in and around their Haditha homes—and we were right beside him. Without split screens or any state-of-the-art tricks, Broomfield also puts us right beside Ramirez’s victims and the Al Qaeda-conscripted mercenaries whose roadside bomb precipitated the massacre. There are no zealots or monsters here, just human beings caught in the gears of war. Here we are, and there they were. Who’s next?
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.