Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saying Good-bye to '08 with Broomfield's BATTLE FOR HADITHA

Here is my last post of what was, all 'round, a pretty bad year -- except for movies, thank... god? Hardly. Let's thank the world's moviesmakers. Whomever they might claim gave them inspiration, TrustMovies would prefer to thank the directors, writers and film crews. Complain all you want, ungrateful wretches, but there were plenty of good films this year, as always, and even more with many good things about them, even if their totality didn't match their moments.

I don't like Best Lists, since there's no way I or any single critic can see every movie released in a year's time from every country in the world -- and certainly not by December 31. Best Lists give over to our ever-unsatiated need for more sound bites about things rather than the things themsevles, and there are far too many anyway. They're needless, encouraging audiences to choose only a "select" few films, instead of taking more chances and being surprised. (And considering what's on many of these lists, viewers may well go away angry and disappointed, swearing to leave movies alone for yet another season -- or year.) What's wrong with a list of Good Films Worth Seeing? Of course, that would have to be compiled monthly or weekly to keep it of publishable length. Admission: I do compile what was first requested of me by GreenCine a few years back: The Best Gay DVDs of the Year. (DVDs I can better keep up with than theatrical movies, but even this list is hardly complete. So I welcome your additions, deletions and general suggestions.)

For my last post, since I watched the film today, I strongly recommend Nick Broomfield's BATTLE FOR HADITHA. Now that America has elected some hope for its future (and also because our collective wallet and purse are currently empty and our credit is kaput), we're not hearing much about Iraq. "The surge worked" is oft spoken, but so what? That hardly lets us off the hook for the lies, venality and stupidy that took us to Iraq and will keep us there for who knows how long. I would wager we can expect our own version of the Israel/Palestine scenario and perhaps as longlasting, too. Which will, of course, play nicely into the plans and hands of our military-industrial complex and powers-that-be. So far, not a single film released about our misadventure in Iraq has fared well enough to strike pay dirt with the public and most have failed miserably. I think it is greatly to our filmmakers' credit that they have kept trying.

As for Broomfield's film, it's perhaps the best to come out of our Iraq debacle so far: better even than those I covered in this large lump nine months ago for Greencine. The first thing you may notice about Battle for Haditha is the dialog. It's trenchant, funny, fierce and real, yet much of it has been improvised. The second thing you'll notice is the actual filming: something between a necessarily fast-on-its-feet documentary look and a series of strong, sharp images that resonate esthetically. This director/co-writer (here with Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford) melds his present narrative into his past documentary background and comes up with a filmmaking style that rivets. Then you'll start noticing the contradictions.

These are immediately present in the attitude of the American Marines we see, and even more so in the Iraqis, the first of whom tells his wife how utterly crazy are the actions of the Al Qaeda insurgents -- whom he then goes off to work for. Later he and his young "co-worker" accept an assignment to plant and then detonate a roadside IED. There are all kinds of Iraqis pictured here, along with some spectacular scenery (Broomfield filmed in Jordan) and lively characters vividly experienced. Because we know (from history and from the opening title cards) that on November 19, 2005, a roadside bomb killed one American and wounded two others, and that soon after the Americans retaliated by killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children, we suspect that at least some of the characters we are watching -- on both sides -- will be involved. But which? Broomfield's film is a fictional account of what happened and why, who were the killers and who, finally, was blamed. While it begins with what we now know, it then fills in the necessary blanks very well indeed.

Among the many expert scenes is one gem between the two semi-reluctant detonators that beautifully limns the difference between youth and age. Another is among the better whip-the-recruits-into-fighting-frenzy. An occasional bit of overkill rears up, as when the older Iraqi explains to the younger how America's disbanding of the Iraq army has led to its members joining the insurgency. American audiences may need to hear this information, but surely the Iraqis already understand this all too well. These moments are fortunately few, and as Battle for Haditha closes in on the massacre, it shows us exactly what we must see, no more or less, making it as startling and horrible as we can bear. The repercussions are strange -- often as moving as the events were shocking. Broomfield's ending, which in other circumstances might be accused of sentimentality, is instead, given all we now know of the lead character involved, the only possible road to redemption.

That character is played remarkably well by newcomer Elliot Ruiz (shown top right, above), a natural actor who not coincidentally served in Iraq. On the extras, you can view an interesting interview with him and watch the audition that helped cast him. We shall be seeing more of Mr. Ruiz. All of the cast does fine work, and I wish I were better versed in Arab names and language so I might differentiate among its excellent members to give them proper credit.

That's it for '08. I'm planning some interesting things for the new year, and one of the first off the plate will be the story of a new animation filmmaker who's using our NYC Subway system to distribute his work. This will take few days to complete. Meanwhile, let's toast to a better new year.

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