As ham-fisted and angry and awkward as it often is, Redacted has something more on its mind than telling another bad-day-in-country story. It doubts the very possibility of telling truth in a war zone.
[Embedded reporters will] tell sympathetic stories about the soldiers they're with because the soldiers are protecting them and they feel very heartfelt things about them. And they're not going to take pictures of anything the soldiers are doing that's going to make them look bad. But that's not what they're supposed to do. They're reporters.
-- Brian De Palma, Salon (13 November 2007)
"Welcome to the oven," narrates Pfc. Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), "a.k.a. Camp Carolina, our home away from home in this godforsaken country." He notes the stench, shoots the barracks, and calls to his buddies to smile as he turns the camera on them. He means to keep a "war diary," he says, a sure ticket into film school. With his eye on a distant prize, Angel tries hard not to see where he's at or what he's doing.
Angel's footage -- which makes up the start of Brian De Palma's Redacted -- is all about his fellow troops, their complaints about "hajji retards" and arguments among themselves, their terminal naïvete and brutal arrogance. They call each other "pussies" and show their differences: McCoy (Rob Devaney) reads Hustler, Gabe (Kel O'Neill) John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra ("It's the basic book-cover situation," he explains, "Don't judge a book by its cover"). Angel points his camera at Pfc. Flake (Patrick Carroll), "Your average grunt," with a confederate flag pillow. "He's completely in touch with his primal self," says Angel, "He's one of our latest recruits, from way down the bottom of the gumbo barrel." He's also trouble. You've seen this movie before.
So have the guys in it. As ham-fisted and angry and awkward as it often is, Redacted has something more on its mind than telling another bad-day-in-country story. It doubts the very possibility of telling truth in a war zone. Sometimes, the characters speak to such doubts: intellectual Gabe protests Angel's project on "official" grounds ("If you have a camera, you're part of the media," he says, "and we're under strict orders not to talk to the media"), but moralistic McCoy submits a cliché as reality. He pulls out his own camera and points it at Angel, so they film each other filming. "The first casualty of this entire conflict?" he says, "It's gonna be the truth."
These brief exchanges indicate one of Redacted's essential arguments. It's not just that the war is bad, based on administration lies and turning young troops into confused victims and traumatized killers. It's that the media have lost any semblance of integrity in their reporting of the war. True, the Daily Show generation has long since lost faith in the news' ability to speak truth to power (reporters being embedded with and indebted to sources in combat zones and elsewhere), but Redacted indicts all so-called information sources, from TV to the movies to the net. Beginning with Angel's tape (he names his opus "Tell Me No Lies"), De Palma's "fictional documentary" assembles a range of materials -- a somber "French-made" documentary (Barrage, "un film de Marc et Francois Clement," records the daily travails of soldiers manning a checkpoint in Samarra), Western and Iraqi news clips, video off Arabic internet sites, in which insurgents set IEDs and record the explosive results, and a U.S.-based "tattooed girl" (Abigail Savage) imagines payback for criminal U.S. soldiers: local Iraqis, she says, "should be given baseball bats, white hot branding irons, blowtorches, dull knives, pliers, and of course, rocks, and be told to go to town."
Rage and revenge are not helpful responses, the film submits, even if they are understandable, given chronically false and limited information. The problem, according to Redacted, is pervasive corporate, military, and administration collusion, the power structure no longer separate from those who might speak to it. As if to illustrate, De Palma's film also arrives in theater with some free publicity, courtesy of Bill O'Reilly. The controversy seems to concern the film's depiction of U.S. troops committing war crimes, such depiction constituting an "unpatriotic" act in and of itself. Inspired by a 2006 case in which American troops in Mahmoudiya raped a schoolgirl and then murdered her and her family in an effort to make the crime look like the work of "insurgents," the film does include disturbing imagery -- both Angel's inadvertent footage of his sergeant's (Ty Jones) death by IED and night-visioned shots of the rape committed by Angel's buddies, Flake and Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman).
Redacted's multiple accounts of the troops' frustrations and errors in judgment hardly justify Flake and Rush's monstrosity. When the men are informed that their deployment in Samarra is extended, Rush is undone. "I swear to God," he moans, "It's like that Clerks movie, you know, where the guy has to work on his day off and all kinds of crazy shit happens and all he keeps thinking is, 'Oh man, I'm not even supposed to be here today.'" McCoy sighs, less in commiseration than instruction: "None of us is supposed to be here." Rush can't hear this ("We're sittin' ducks," he wails), and only silenced when the sergeant steps to him: "Welcome to the goddamn army. We all wanna fucking go home. We can't so stand the fuck up and be a fucking man about it."
"Being a man about it," for Rush and Flake, means seeking revenge. Brutish and ignorant from jump, they call to mind the dim-witted go-along squad members in De Palma's Casualties of War, in which they kidnap, rape, and murder a Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam war (also based on a true story). Where Sean Penn's performance went a long way toward complicating the dynamics that produced that horror, Redacted is frequently hampered by awkward acting and obvious point-making. Flake, for instance, is never the least bit sympathetic. After he shoots a pregnant woman at the checkpoint, mistaking her for an insurgent, he insists he's acted according to rules of engagement. The relatively reasonable Sgt. Vazques (Mike Figueroa) backs him up, pointing out that it's not their fault if "Most of these fucking people when you put your hand up, they don't know that it means to stop. Most of these Iraqis think I'm waving hello." Flake takes it a next step, telling Angel's camera, "Waxing hajjis is like stomping cockroaches. I've done that and it makes me thirsty, so how 'bout a nice cold beer?"
But there's another way to understand Redacted, apart from its manifest raging and villainizing, or even its protest against irresponsible media production and consumption. This other framework has to do with the costs of war, at every level, quite literally, the bodies that it makes. A final sequence of photos, titled "Collateral Damage," shows only death and reactions to death, mourning, upset, and pain. Te sequence is stunning, whether you see the studio's "redacted" (faces-blurred) version or the director's edit, faces clear. Death, at last, is its own truth, all too visible.