“What do you wanna know?” A young Marine casually utters this question at the outset of “Battle for Haditha,” and it’s a fitting epigraph to Nick Broomfield‘s blistering, ambitious film. The query prefaces the PFC’s offhand account of his service and the conditions of his barracks in Haditha, Iraq, but it could easily be Broomfield’s own inquiry to his audience: In a singularly brutal and cloudy episode of the war, a group of Marines is attacked by insurgents and retaliates by unleashing their notion of justice on a small residential enclave, killing some twenty-four people. What do you want to know about these events, and what means do you have to figure them out?
Of course, behind this is the issue of Broomfield’s presentation. In his documentary work, like “Kurt & Courtney” and “Biggie and Tupac,” he aggressively implicates himself in the narratives, and Broomfield’s fictional film is similarly bold. Filming in a verite style in Jordan with a cast of ex-Marines and nonprofessionals, Broomfield fictionalizes the events of November 2005 — the names have been changed to protect both guilty and innocent — as a kind of morality play of the Iraq experience. By allowing his actors to speak for themselves, without prescripted dialogue, the film seeks to give voice and body to those figures — U.S. soldiers, al Qaeda operatives, insurgents, and Iraqi civilians — often obscured in the flurry of news reports or military press releases about catastrophes such as the Haditha battle.
With its barrage of blood and dust, “Battle for Haditha” attempts to present a ground-level and largely unmediated perspective on the motivations of the players involved, including the insurgents who instigate the skirmish and the Marines whose reaction yields devastating consequences. (Of the latter, the frazzled, but sympathetic Corporal Ramirez, impressively played by newcomer Elliot Ruiz, is the primary focus.) With actors often speaking in candid soliloquies adapted from their real-life experiences, the film’s improvisatory style wavers between credible and histrionic, but the overall effect is undeniably powerful. No less confrontational than Broomfield’s own on-camera persona, these scenes of voiced anger and fear — and the harrowing brutality that ensues — serve as a reminder that, while one is watching a film, the people and problems are real.
In the gradually expanding subgenre of Iraq War films, the question of mediation — how we, as the non-combatants at home, experience the war, authentically or erroneously — has become something of a cliche. From the films that documented the invasion (like Michael Moore‘s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Jehane Noujaim‘s “Control Room“) to more recent films about the attendant fallout (“Operation: Dreamland” and “Iraq in Fragments“), cinematic renderings of the Iraq War seem to be as anxious about who’s holding the camera (or manipulating the footage) as they are about what’s being filmed.
Still more recent films, like Brian De Palma‘s “Redacted” and especially Errol Morris‘s “Standard Operating Procedure,” are even in some sense less concerned with the subject of the war itself than how it is conveyed to us through the media. These films begin with the assumption that one cannot begin to tease out the experience of the war — its true toll on human life — without first sorting out the question of the circuitous and misleading ways that information gets to us. To be sure, this question of media distortion continues to be important, but isn’t there a good deal more to be learned from our five years in Iraq?
“Battle for Haditha” addresses this issue of mediation directly in its final moments with a cable-news summation of the film’s events, complete with the brutally boiled-down cable news headline: “Ramirez: Hero or Bad Guy?” But it is the event itself — and not how it is reported or misrepresented — that fascinates Broomfield, and this is what distinguishes his film. Debates about mediation are important, but there is also, lest we forget, an actual war going on. Perhaps this film will be branded as hubristic in its attempt to capture a “real Iraq” in a medium — the docudrama — that seems to inherently deny realism, while supposedly shrewder, more postmodern filmmakers have all but labeled such efforts impossible. But Broomfield’s point is that these images of war, as plastic and pliable as they seem to us, nonetheless mark the deaths of thousands. As problematic and knotty as it can be, “Battle for Haditha” is still a bold effort to grapple with what truth lies behind these images, rather than simply throw one’s hands up in the face of them.