REDACTED (dir. Brian DePalma)
Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian De Palma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace.
The supposedly based on a true story saga focuses on four soldiers serving at a typical Iraqi checkpoint. Their day is divided up between talking about sex, serving their country, and continued conversations about carnality. One day, a tragic event befalls the troops. On top of it, a standard stop and search goes horribly wrong. Hoping to let off some steam, the frustrated men decide to head over to a previous raid site and rape the 15 year old girl who lives there—kind of payback for all the crap they’ve had to sling through recently. The crime goes haywire, and a massacre results. Threats are made. Dime is dropped. Investigations begin. All the while, we witness this pathetic display of power gone poisonous through the viewfinder of an artistically minded Private, various on site cameras, and the media reaction both local and abroad. Naturally, some if not all of the information is ‘redacted’—censored as a matter of US national security.
So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise. Trying to be the War on Terror version of The Blair Witch Project, this media savvy screed has platoons full of potential. Like dozens of Iraq documentaries that use the new tech wired perspective of the average grunt, De Palma wants to replace polish with passion. This is one of the most ordinary movies the man has ever made—scads better than the mournful Black Dahlia, but far from the accomplished work that made him one of the ‘70s favored sons. Using his absolute hatred of the Bush policies, and marrying it to the new purview of soldiers as accidental psychos, the results barely reach their target. Instead, the simplistic cause and effect narrative is muddled by pointless sequences of non-erotic male bonding and actor overindulgence. The no-name cast is supposed to reflect the average Joe dynamic of the modern armed forces, every man in it for his own non-altruistic needs. Such an apparent eye-opener is just the first volley in what ends up being one of the more motivationally misguided anti-combat efforts in the rather limited subgenre.
Part of the problem with Redacted, and the myriad of equally ineffectual Iraq War movies released in 2007, is the decision to turn the troops into moustache twirling villains. Whether it’s In the Valley of Elah‘s involuntary serial killers, or this film’s sex and violence minded rapists, it’s rare to see the real bad guy—the Administration—taken to task. Instead, they are excused as bumbling bureaucrats (as in Rendition) or jaded, jingoistic salesman shilling for their own political gain (i.e. Lions for Lambs). But making the military the fall guy for all the incredibly incompetent decisions by this government is like blaming bullets for killing people. Someone is holding the gun—and more importantly, someone authorized the use of that weapon in a now pointless endeavor.
What these lackluster diatribes need is a clearly defined focus away from the men and women in uniform. An All the President’s Men like roasting on the lead up to 9/11 and the decision to milk fear for the fiscal security of future fossil fuels is the real horror still playing out today. That a private goes bonkers and blows up a civilian is causational collateral damage—never excusable, but more readily explainable than the whole UN/WMD presentation.
Still, we have to work with what De Palma gives us, and even then, it can’t match the fire and commitment of his similarly themed Vietnam vitriol, Casualties of War. Lacking real dramatic coherence, the sloppy sequences where future filmmaker Izzy Diaz gets his compatriots to ‘open up’ on camera are so stilted as to be taken from a community college stage play. No one seems normal—instead, they are central casting conceits of the kind of lowered induction standards joked about in the dialogue. Even worse, once we move outside the bonds of the POV material, the faux French documentary (which is stuck doing all the anti-America heavy lifting) and the Al-Jazeera approach are like Bible-thumpers in the back row. Their point is pedantic, unambiguous, and without a lick of legitimizing context. Indeed, another fallacy running through this and other films of its ilk is the lack of applicable perspective. Granted, there is no excuse for this pointless war, but to turn it into the Westernized version of the Al-Qaeda camps (that is, training grounds for prospective mindless murderers) seems to demonize an inappropriate target.
Besides, you never win an argument via extremes. Want to show the toll such mindless military meandering takes on the troops? Give us a post-tour treatise on the myriad of injuries and mental complaints registered in the last six years. Need to confirm that Iraq is destroying the moral of our soldiers? Follow one unit for an entire year, making sure to capture all the highs and lows, the deaths and the diversions that turn modern battle into the sovereignty version of a film shoot (meaning ‘hurry up and wait’). Redacted does have moments that bare this idea out. When we watch the day-to-day struggle to control the populace, maintain checkpoint readiness, prepare for possible IEDs, and basically survive the Middle Eastern environment, this film has purpose. De Palma lets his goaded guard down long enough to allow some authenticity to seep in. But once the boys decide that raping a local gal equals the ultimate test of their mired manhood, the drama dies. Instead, what we wind up with is sensationalized atrocities that never once come across as authentic or real.
In fact, the main sticking point for many will be the flippant way these jackasses extol their crimes. They threaten those in the know in full view of every surveillance camera in the camp, and when they go about their abomination, they leave enough clues behind to instantly warrant investigation (let alone foreign media outrage). Sure, De Palma tries to reshuffle the already stacked deck by showing a terrorist website that exploits children in the course of its insurgent bombing campaign, and our unapologetic fiends seem to get caught and crucified near the end. But then the film folds and asks for a new deal, showing us craven images of actual Iraqi dead that the narrative itself couldn’t be bothered to embrace. The “see, told you so” angle at the end may have some minor power (actual death on camera is cruel and soul sickening), but Redacted hasn’t earned this horror. It’s merely capitalizing on its existence to make a far more self-interested point.
Instead of heading over to the hot sands of Jordan and retrofitting their neighborhoods into simulated Iraq settings, De Palma should have spent his limited budget on a direct documentary on student apathy. Absent a draft—the great equalizer and instigator of any conflict—the ennui expressed by those who’ll wind up paying for this failed policy is staggering. It’s far more shocking than a single image in Redacted.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.