Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Battle for Haditha

In all, I haven't found The Battle for Haditha to be nearly as schematic as a number other reviewers (Fernando F. Croce of Slant Magazine, for example). Yes, Nick Broomfield's docudrama, an account of the real life slaughter of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by a handful of Marines in retaliation for a fatal bombing, makes sure to skew our sympathies towards the Iraqi people (the civilians certainly, but the insurgents as well), but it's careful to situate the Marines' actions within the context of the daily stresses of occupation and, despite the "kill them before they kill us" mentality of the soldiers, at least one partially sympathetic (if thinly sketched) figure emerges from the group. And certainly Broomfield avoids the sort of diagrammable character charting that characterizes a truly schematic filmmaker like Paul Haggis, in which each person is given a single positive trait and a single blind spot in an a half-hearted stab at creating "complexity".

No, what proves to be Broomfield's undoing is his heavily manipulative presentation, at once unpleasant and unenlightening, of the central atrocity. If the obvious reference point for Battle is Brian DePalma's Redacted, then Croce is shrewd in invoking the example of United 93 as well. While he refers to the "dubious Paul Greengrass mold, complete with camera shakes, contrived drama, and spurious 'humanization,'" the real lesson of the comparison is to consider the degree to which such harrowing recreations of tragic events can ever prove illuminating. While United 93 was essentially unjustifiable, milking taut suspense from a series of horrifying events that were all too well known to the public and whose detailed presentation could thus serve no socially useful, not to mention aesthetically gratifying, purpose, Battle can at least claim to be bringing awareness of U.S.-perpetrated atrocity to a public (although given the film's limited distribution a very small one) that may not have been aware of the events.

Still, like Greengrass with his tear-wrenching sequence of the doomed passengers calling their families to say goodbye, Broomfield engineers a transparent manipulation of his audience to achieve maximum rhetorical effect. Any narrative film engages in some form of viewer manipulation - after all, there is always an authorial viewpoint directing the audience's perception of events - it's just a question of how much the viewer is willing to tolerate. Broomfield's presentation, which happily takes in women being shot, Marines picking off Iraqi civilians while exchanging high-fives, little girls with blood on their face, is enough to make any viewer cry foul. Yes, these events actually occurred, and Broomfield's recreation does stir up a fair measure of fury, but I can't see what purpose there is in sitting through such an insistently unpleasant presentation of atrocity. Before too long, the political point is made and we're left with Broomfield's gleefully overblown aesthetic and little else of any value.

To his credit, immediately after the slaughter, Broomfield shifts his attention to questions of individual consequence, highlighting the guilt and anger of the Corporal who led the assault, the only Marine allowed to exhibit any remorse. Throughout the picture, the filmmaker's shown a sensitivity to the situation of the Americans (if less than that extended to the Iraqi civilians), navigating a hostile environment where they can be blown up at any moment by insurgent bombs. He's also attempted to give a minimal depth to the Corporal by providing him with a backstory (tough childhood in a Philadelphia ghetto) and saddling him with a series of recurring nightmares, meant to signify his uncertainty about his actions. But, this bit of post-incident handwringing, hung on so flimsy a characterization, finally proves unconvincing and by the time the Corporal's charged with thirteen counts of murder, we've learned a little bit about the bureaucratic machinations of the U.S. military, but almost nothing about the experiences of the average American soldier or Iraqi citizen, except that both sides are placed into difficult situations in which an unclouded moral certainty becomes impossible. That this uncertainty finds its dramatic expression in a meticulously detailed slaughter doesn't mean Broomfield's addressed its implications; all he's really done is indulge in a useless, and highly rhetorical, bit of showmanship.

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