House 2 (Tribeca 2018)
In November 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians were shot in a small back bedroom in what would become known as “House 2.” After the deaths were brought to the attention of a Time magazine reporter, and then to the NCIS, it became clear that these deaths were not civilians caught in crossfire, or insurgents fighting with Marines, but innocent men, women, and children killed deliberately and at close range. But out of an entire team of Marine responsible for clearing houses after an IED explosion and subsequent shooting, only one soldier, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, was indicted on multiple counts of murder.
Director Michael Epstein crafts a deeply disturbing documentary with House 2, which follows Wuterich’s legal team as they prepare for his trial, the most expensive in military history. Crossing over interviews with defense attorneys, NCIS investigators, and Wuterich himself, the film pieces together a case and explains, in precise detail, what they know and don’t know about what happened in House 2. The film intercuts video from the aftermath of the shooting, taped transcripts of witness testimony, and images taken by one soldier to document what they found when they entered the house. It’s a horrifying and far-reaching chapter in the War on Terror, an expose of violence, with the question of who killed those people, and why, at its center.
The murkiness of the case is evident from the outset—the murders weren’t investigated until six months after the fact, when it became clear that Time would run a story about the incident. The NCIS investigation was interfered with by higher command, immunities handed out to other members of the team in order to obtain their testimony against Wuterich. Wuterich himself is an enigmatic figure—he’s shown at home with his wife and children, always claiming that he doesn’t know what happened in House 2, because he can’t actually remember. His own legal team believe their client is being railroaded into taking responsibility for the murders in order to avoid a scandal similar to the My-Lai massacre. What he actually knows, or remembers, is unclear—he neither admits to committing the crime, nor does he explicitly implicate anyone else.
What does become clear over the course of House 2 is the spectacular miscarriage of military justice. There’s no doubt that the film takes a particular angle on the events—there are no interviews with prosecuting attorneys, and no representatives of Marine command, save for Wuterich himself and his defense team. This doesn’t completely skew the perception of the case, however, though I would have liked to hear something from the other side. The presence of two NCIS investigators helps to balance the narrative, as they present their accounts of how they carried out their investigations, and where they were told to stop by higher-ups and the gaps that the prosecution and the defense attempted to fill.
House 2 is an absorbing, infuriating documentary, difficult to watch. It brings the viewer close to the events with images of the murdered women and children examined in forensic detail. The investigators attempt to establish how many shooters there were, where they might have stood, how they would have committed the crimes. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the humanity of the victims, the investigators, the Marines, and the attorneys, forcing the viewer to reckon not just with the forensic evidence, but with the reality of human life purposelessly cut short.
The downside to a film being as well-put-together as House 2 is that it can occasionally come off as an entertaining thriller rather than a documentary examining a disturbing and far-reaching event in America’s military history. There are a few revelations introduced late in the film that seem to be present more for dramatic value than in the service of telling the story. But because the film makes use of contemporary footage, it seems to play out as more information comes out. Wuterich’s legal team change their approach to the case regularly, trying to reconcile contradictory evidence and the behavior of a prosecutorial team that seem to be playing by a different set of rules. What comes out is the way that military justice is manipulated and abrogated to avoid culpability for the deaths of so many innocent people.
House 2 elucidates the degree to which Iraqi lives have been dispensable in the so-called War on Terror, and the degree to which even military lives will be thrown under the bus in service to buoying a desirable narrative. But in the end, a group of unarmed women and children were murdered in their beds by Marines “clearing” a house. That is itself a scathing indictment of the War on Terror, and the atrocities still being committed in its name.
House 2 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival.