With Battle for Haditha, British documentarian Nick Broomfield brandishes his verité techniques for a fictional recreation of the November 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines. Aspiring to be a modern Battle of Algiers, the film falls far short of that lofty goal, hawking standard-issue characterizations and leaden cause-effect analysis to humdrum effect.
To be sure, Broomfield generates palpable you-are-there immediacy, especially during the final act, when his camera's close proximity to its subjects (American and Iraqi alike) amplifies the mounting mania and fury that's been simmering for the prior hour. Such intensity, however, doesn't come equipped with matching insightfulness, as the depictions of its various players - marines, everyday citizens, and insurgents - are fashioned after now-familiar, simplistic psychological molds and action-reaction dynamics.
Broomfield draws connecting lines between his subjects with an unsteady hand, crudely reducing the event to a collective tragedy that could have been prevented if only a soldier's tormented cries for help had been taken seriously by comrades, or heard by an army doctor.
Haditha's examination of an American crime in Iraq is as unsophisticated as that submitted by Brian DePalma's Redacted, although at least Broomfield forgoes spurious aesthetic shenanigans, his handheld cinematography lending the proceedings (shot in Jordan) an anxious tension. The director's decision to configure his material as a slowly-burning-fuse thriller - in which anticipation for an inevitable catastrophe is stoked - is somewhat tawdry, an attempt (not unlike United 93) to wring base genre suspense from grave circumstances.
Nonetheless, Broomfield's exploitation of expectations are more forgivable than his outlines-passing-for-characters, each defined by blunt exclamations or similarly one-dimensional behavior. A jaded marine says, "I don't know why we're here," an Iraqi woman is given faux-humanity via a scene in which she seductively strips down to her underwear and gets in bed with her husband (see! Arabs are just like us!), and a terrorist - sounding like a New York Times editorial or a talking-head from No End in Sight - states that "The Americans created the insurgency when they got rid of the army."
Meanwhile, the tale's nominal protagonist, Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz), likens Iraq to the universal bodily orifice that discharges waste, replete with specific commentary on which parts of said cavity (and its excrement) represent which aspects of the war. This lack of nuance is endemic to Broomfield's latest, and the participation of numerous Iraq vets in acting roles (including Ruiz) ultimately suggests that either the director didn't faithfully represent these men's stories, or that soldiers aren't adequately suited for assessing and dissecting their own personal experiences for a dramatic narrative.
In the film's estimation, marines are by and large coarse lunkheads who psyche themselves up listening to heavy metal so they can better fulfill their duty to "kill, kill, kill!"; Haditha residents are average domestic types trying to get by in an increasingly anarchic environment; and even Ahmad, the insurgent whose roadside improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a Humvee convoy sparks the Americans' retaliatory slaughter, is a doting father distraught over his country's violence and his own culpability in its continuation.
Battle for Haditha presents the Haditha incident as a tragedy created by lots of fundamentally decent people carrying out actions they thought, at the time, were necessary. Yet this thesis is frustrated by the director's unwillingness to present the marines and civilians as anything more than representative signposts meant to bolster the story's central argument.
"We're killing our own people. I wish I hadn't done it," laments Ahmad after blowing marines to smithereens. "I guess after a while you just get hardened. You just get numb," opines Ramirez. In the battle between subtlety and obviousness, the former, ultimately, stands no chance. Repeatedly articulating main points through Cliff's Notes-succinct declarations rather than weighty dramatic scenarios, Broomfield delivers a portrait of wartime calamity that comes off like a hot-topic project culled together from year-old newspaper headlines and snippets of recent, equally unrefined Iraq-themed films.