After many years as a bumbling, proto-Louis Theroux documentary-maker, Nick Broomfield switched tack with his last film, Ghosts, and fictionalised a real incident. To paraphrase the old insurance ad, he made a drama out of a crisis. But because he shot his reconstruction in stark fashion, with non-professional actors, Ghosts felt more like a documentary than most of his documentaries.
He does the same thing with Battle for Haditha. The event he's examining this time occurred in Iraq in November 2005, when a roadside bomb wrecked a US armoured car, killing one of its passengers, and the marines responded by slaughtering 24 men, women and children in the neighbourhood. Broomfield's technique is to peek at what the people involved might have been doing in the hours before and after the bomb went off. Several marines are seen on patrol and in their barracks. A mild-mannered veteran of Saddam's army agrees to plant the bomb for money, even though he thinks his al-Qa'ida paymasters are "idiots". And the families that are unlucky enough to live next to the fateful stretch of road go about their business, knowing that they face reprisals from the insurgents if they report the bomb, and reprisals from the Americans if they don't.
Filming on location in Jordan, with a cast of ex-marines and Iraqi refugees, Broomfield's most radical decision is to present Haditha as a vibrant, sunny city where friends go shopping and have parties – not an aspect we see very often on News at Ten.
Once we've got to know and care for all of the participants, the film comes, with sickening inevitability, to the bomb and its horrifying aftermath. It's a heart-stopping, upsetting sequence. Broomfield's only misstep is to have his characters spell out their messages in monologue-heavy final scenes: a marine tearfully declares his hatred for the top brass; a grieving woman asks what Europe is doing to help; the bomber speculates that when US forces leave, Iraq will be in worse hands than before.
But even with its redundant exposition, Broomfield has made the most enlightening and vital entry in the current cycle of films about US troops in the Middle East. Like The Kingdom, it allows Arabs to have human faces, but it leaves out that film's cartoonish heroics. Like In the Valley of Elah, it highlights the ordeal of young, bewildered American soldiers, but without the stodgy detective plot. It can also be filed as a sequel to United 93, which had a similar naturalism. If United 93 showed how the "war on terror" started, Battle for Haditha shows how well it's going.
Another comparable film, first released in 1975, is Overlord, a British black-and-white docudrama that splices archive footage of Second World War bombings with the economical story of a representative 20-year-old conscript's training and eventual D-Day mission. The documentary material, drawn from the Imperial War Museum, is astonishing, not just for the destruction it depicts, but also for the Allies' Heath Robinson machinery. In the dramatic scenes, inspired by contemporary diaries and shot with 1930s lenses, the courtesy and valour of the soldiers are almost as startling. In some ways this rarely seen curio is the ultimate war film.Reuse content