Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ON DVD: BATTLE FOR HADITHA

Two things immediately jump out as you watch the Iraq War docudrama Battle for Haditha: 1.) I can't believe frickin' Nick Broomfield made this, and 2.) who in the hell is this guy playing the character of Corporal Ramirez?... because he's incredible!

On that first point, I was very prematurely negative about Battle for Haditha when I first read of its production. Of the straight documentaries Broomfield made prior to Battle for Haditha, I'd seen Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, and part of one of his Aileen Wuornos films. I found them all to be the equivalent of tabloid TV trash, and didn't think much better of their maker. I'm not the greatest fan of the documentary genre, and, to me, Broomfield was among its worst offenders. So it's no understatement to say Battle for Haditha hit me like a revelation. Broomfield's scattershot and scatterbrain attempts at finding truth in his non-fiction films play like a bunch of headless chickens bumping breasts and kicking up dirt. But apply that technique to a fictional retelling and exploration of the clusterfu*k surrounding the controversial and still unclear events of November 19th, 2005 in the Iraqi province of Al Anbar, and you have the rebirth of a filmmaker.

I'm no expert on the Haditha killings, but here is what I do know (if readers find any of this to be inaccurate, don't blow a fuse, let's talk about it in the comment section): an IED blew up a Marine vehicle killing one Marine and wounding two others; in retaliation, the Marines killed twenty-four Iraqis near homes adjacent to the site of the IED explosion; fifteen of the twenty-four Iraqis killed were known innocent civilians; the Marines tried to brush aside the incident with a press release saying shrapnel from the IED killed the civilians; it was discovered that the video evidence of this incident was provided by a man who had also made propaganda videos for Al Qaeda; since this occurred, all charges against the group of Marines have been dropped except for those against Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who is still awaiting trial.

Anyone who has followed the story of the Haditha killings with the hope of obtaining a knowable conclusion to it all, understands the true complications and confusions surrounding the event. It seems, at this point, that a definite answer will forever be out of reach, and to his credit, Nick Broomfield respected that lack of clarity and made an honest, heartfelt drama dedicated to the lives affected by this emotionally-charged tragedy.

Since Broomfield knows as much as the rest of us about Haditha, he forgoes any personal agenda and turns his camera to the soldiers, the innocent civilians, and the terrorists who planted the IED. The characters are fictional, but parallels follow the various true accounts closely. The central figure is Corporal Ramirez, played by real-life former Marine Elliot Ruiz. I don't know if Ruiz had acting aspirations prior to Battle for Haditha, or if he has any now, but his presence is magnetic, his physical features riding the line between youth and manhood, nailing what Francis Ford Coppola hoped to evoke by casting a young Lawrence Fishburn in Apocalypse Now!

Doing a quick search on Ruiz, I found a fascinating interview with him on Defend Our Marines, a site set up with the goal of arguing in favor of the Marines charged in the Haditha killings. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

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Defend Our Marines: You know, people, including me, are angry at you.

Elliot Ruiz: Yeah, I’ve been on DefendOurMarines.com. That’s why I wanted to do this interview. The thing is that nobody’s seen the movie yet. From the trailer what they see is a bunch of Marines killing all these innocent people. I want people to understand that this film isn’t trying to incriminate the Marines.

Defend Our Marines: But your portrayal of the shooting at the white taxi is cold-blooded murder. Your character shoots five Iraqis who have their hands in the air. In reality, the shooting at the white taxi was nothing like your portrayal. SSgt Wuterich was a good distance away: his line of sight was blocked, another Marine almost certainly fired the fatal shots. Forensics and testimony all tend to corroborate statements that the Iraqis were moving away from the car.

Elliot Ruiz: The film is definitely a fictional portrayal. At no point are we blaming the Marines for this. I wouldn't want to be part of something that gave the Marine Corps a bad name. I saw what the director, Nick Broomfield, was trying to do. Nick wasn’t trying to blame the Marines, Nick wasn’t trying to blame the Iraqis. And it wasn’t just a two-sided story, he also showed how the innocent Iraqis are caught in the middle between the military and the insurgents. So he’s actually showing three stories at once. (READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW HERE)
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What's fascinating about this exchange is that both men share a professional closeness, yet they passionately disagree. I don't know if David Allender (aka Defend our Marines) ever served, but he is definitely pro-military. Ruiz obviously is too. Both men are "on the same side" yet they debate the portrayal of real-life events in Broomfield's film. Typically, in a discussion like this, we'd have two ideological opposites yelling at each other, getting everybody nowhere. Here, we have two experts, loyal to the Marines, respectful of the honor to all who have served, disagreeing on important details between the cracks. It's gray area disagreement between two like-minded people that we don't get enough of these days. For entertainment, the media wants two opposing firemouths (not intricacy), and hardcore ideologues on the left and right will exile you if you step out of line.

It's like Cpl. Ramirez says, "the Corps don't give a fuck about you, you gotta take care of yourself". We know Ramirez doesn't believe this, but we also sense that it's an emotion, born of frustration and fear, that every member of a combat unit in Iraq has likely experienced at one time or another. Broomfield nails this area of personal complexity that Kimberly Pierce ended up turning into goofy melodrama in Stop-Loss.

I hope people will see Battle for Haditha. It never made it to the big screen in my town. In a way, that makes sense. Most of us feel comfortable taking hard-line, black & white stances on the Iraq War and the greater War on Terror, so when a challenging film like Battle for Haditha or the excellent - and also barely seen - Grace Is Gone surfaces, audiences turn away because they only crave agreement from their entertainment. But what you think you know, you may not know, or you may just even - gasp! - change your mind. Remember what I used to think about Nick Broomfield?

13 comments:

bill r. said...

Well, I'm shocked. Fox, I too was predisposed to hate this film, both due to the general nature of these kinds of films over the last eight years, and because my opinion of Broomfield is very similar to yours. But now I'm definitely going to check it out, along with Grace is Gone, which I'd been curious about for a while anyway.

bill r. said...

Oh, I should have added: great review, it being the reason I'm now going to check out this film.

Fox said...

Thanks Bill-

(nice job getting that second comment in under the clock, having them both stamped with a 7:51 AM)

I'll be curious to hear your reaction to both of these movies. I think the reason both of them succeed (for me) is that they decide to focus on the personal effects of war instead of an agenda presented by the director in the way, say, something like The Road to Guantanamo or Rendition does.

bill r. said...

Glenn Kenny presented Grace is Gone along lines similar to yours, and despite finding Cusack to be kind of obnoxious as a person, I know he has it in him to be a great actor, so that's why that one has been on my radar, but now I'm going to actually take the plunge. Haditha, though, I wasn't going to touch. I remember having a discussion on some other site (Kenny's again, I think, actually) where I asked why it was impossible for just ONE movie to be made that showed our soldiers doing the kind of unambiguously good deeds that so many of them are really doing, and someone's response was "Because that's not dramatic". Whatever you say, pal.

Anyway, the point being, I expected nothing different from Haditha. But while it may not be what I've been wishing for, it certainly sounds far from standard-issue. Maybe that's why so few people have been talking about it. So thanks for the tip.

bill r. said...

By the way, I love your Tin Drum sidebar.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'm looking forward to seeing this too. It's something that could so easily be used by either side as propaganda that I'm curious to see how it was handled, especially given that interview with Ruiz.

And I too can get in two comments with the same time stamp. Watch.

Jonathan Lapper said...

See, I did it. And by the way, I've got to come up with a Tin Drum banner soon if that's going to be the alternative. I mean don't get me wrong, I like it, but you're treading on my turf man.

Fox said...

Bill-

But while it may not be what I've been wishing for, it certainly sounds far from standard-issue.

I won't lie, there were moments where I thought Broomfield was being unfair to our soldiers, but then I thought, that in a movie this complicated, that is bound to happen. It's also a movie that is restricted to a very specific incident. What I think Battle for Haditha does wonderfully is empathize with the soldiers, understands the stress and pressure and special insanity of the situations they are thrust into.

I too would love to see a dramatic film where our soldiers are shown in a positive light. Whether you agree with the war or not doesn't mean you need to show the soldiers as ruthless brutes.

Are there bad seeds that throw puppies off cliffs and shoot innocents? Yes. But they're in the minority. And for someone to argue that only these soldiers be depicted because it's "dramatic" seems pretty ethical twisted to me. It's like only wanting to see the most negative news stories b/c they are more entertaining.

On the Grace is Gone DVD, Cusack talks about how it is an anti-war film, and he's right. What's great about that is that he understands that you can make an anti-war film without smashing the military, or hitting the audience you over-the-head an America is the devil sentiment.

Fox said...

HAHA... on The Tin Drum banner, it definitely wasn't intended to start a turf war. It was more a friendly reminder that I put up in hopes that y'all would see it and AT LEAST get a laugh. Which it seems you did, and I'm very happy about that.

Fox said...

I'm looking forward to seeing this too. It's something that could so easily be used by either side as propaganda that I'm curious to see how it was handled, especially given that interview with Ruiz.

I wish I didn't feel the Netflix pressure to get the movie back in the mail b/c I really wanted to listen to the Broomfield & Ruiz commentaries in the special features. I think they both would have revealed a lot about the film much like the interview did.

Perhaps this feeling was spurred on from the interview, but I'm fascinated how a film like this can further the discussion. B/c Battle For Haditha IS so much more even-handed in its approach than what we're used to from wartime films, I think people will feel much more open in discussing the event that it portrays. It doesn't piss you off one way or the other, it makes you want to learn more.

And Ruiz is just so natural and great. I really hope he does more acting.

Toby said...

Here, I do not really consider it will work.
MEXICAN FLANK STEAK WITH MOCK TAMALES

Anonymous said...

Oh god dude this film was something else comming for a current marine. I felt sorta disrespected but i enjoyed the movie... It was kind of cheesy and low budget at the same time it gave an actual insight to this. I dont believe in the killings though. Those marines were innocent. I reccomend watching it but watching cautiously.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah and forgive my mispellings for all you dumbass grammer nazis im a fucking dumbass...