Shot on the shoulder, fast and loose, documentary maestro Broomfield’s Iraq-atrocity autopsy aims for the visceral immediacy and moral bite of Paul Greengrass’ verité stunner Bloody Sunday.
Fusing recreation with speculation, the docudrama pulls extra blur by casting combat veterans as the US marines and non-pros as the Iraqis, as it tracks events leading to the real-life 2005 massacre of 24 Iraq civilians by US marines.
The story is unpacked from three angles: a pair of insurgents who plant a roadside bomb, the marine unit who take revenge when the bomb kills one of their men and an Iraqi couple and their family among the innocent civilians stranded in the free-fire zone. But Broomfield can’t rattle up the power and illumination of his previous effort Ghosts, overstretching himself with his efforts to be even-handed.
Backed by their own blazing death-metal soundtrack, the US troops are all cracked Jarheads (“Train-train-train to kill-kill-kill!”) taught to target women and children as threats. Soldier-turned-actor Elliot Ruiz is excellent as the tortured Corporal, but Broomfield cares more about humanising his Iraqi characters. Sketched snapshots of domestic intimacy only go so far though, with the director never really finding time to develop his characters as he races through a heavy-handed screenplay that regularly slumps into speechy platitudes.
Still, cross-cutting the marine’s ooh-rah battle frenzy, the nervous tension of the bombers and the helplessness of the Iraqi civilians waiting for the carnage to ignite, Broomfield effectively amps up the suspense. The massacre, when it finally arrives, is a relentless, harrowing rush of smoke and screams, the Marines methodically storming house after house, unloading their weapons into men, women and children. Contrivances leak into the film as Broomfield strains to organise his dramatic symmetries into something meaningful, but Haditha’s ground-zero vision of Iraqi civilian life is its most fully formed accomplishment, mapping a human face on the conflict.