The most incendiary of Hollywood’s Iraq War movies to date, Brian De Palma’s Redacted is a repudiation of American foreign policy as well as a critique of new-media voyeurism. Most provocative, the movie is essentially a remake. The story of a small group of American soldiers who rape and kill a local girl, Redacted reprises the plot of the director’s 1989 film, Casualties of War. But that movie, set in Vietnam, was made more than a decade after U.S. troops abandoned Saigon. This one arrives as Americans are still waist deep in Big Sandy.
De Palma frequently deploys Hitchcockian tropes, basing much of his career on Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window: Observers gaze, identities mutate, violence erupts. Although he’s best known for box-office hits like Carrie and Scarface, the director began with low-budget counterculture fare like 1970’s Hi, Mom!, which starred Robert De Niro as a Vietnam vet. The Vietnam debacle is central to De Palma, as he showed by returning to the subject two decades later. Yet Casualties of War didn’t really work, and neither does Redacted. In large part, that’s because the director is more attuned to stylized archetypes than to everyday people. It’s difficult to convey affronts to humanity when none of your characters seem human.
Where the plot of Casualties of War was generic, in Redacted it’s specific. An opening disclaimer, which is gradually obscured by the black marks that government censors use to edit a document, explains that the movie is fiction, yet inspired by an actual incident. The central events of De Palma’s script closely follow the facts of a notorious case, the rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl, whose entire family was butchered during an attack last year. Redacted uses fictionalized characters and a new location—Samarra rather than Mahmudiyah—but doesn’t alter the essentials of the crime.
Highlighting the massacre is only part of the movie’s agenda, however. De Palma returns again to the subject of voyeurism, but in place of a character like Rear Window’s Jimmy Stewart, amusing himself with binoculars while a broken leg mends, the movie gives us the global techno-gawking of amateur video auteurs, instant-news channels, insurgent Web sites, surveillance cameras, and live Internet chats with family members at home. The war is all a show, and no one is merely a spectator. Everyone is implicated, from the embedded journalists to the fanatics who decapitate a kidnapped man on camera. (Perhaps in deference to his feminist critics, De Palma portrays the beheading more explicitly than the rape.)
The movie’s in-house filmmaker is Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a Latino soldier who thinks a documentary about his unit’s experiences is his ticket to film school. Salazar explains that his movie won’t be a “logical narrative,” but that’s not true of Redacted, which is easy to follow. De Palma does forgo a controlling viewpoint, constructing the film entirely of “found” (though actually fake) snippets of video. Yet the result fails to convey the babble of contemporary mass-media overkill. While the director simulates a variety of visual styles, all the characters speak as if they’ve been scripted by a single person. That’s why Redacted, for all its new-technology flourishes, is at heart an old-Hollywood movie.
Salazar’s comrades include Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), the sociopath who devises the rape scheme; B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a chunky racist who happily goes along; and Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), who doesn’t stop the crime but ultimately discloses it. Playing lesser roles are Sgt. James Sweet (Ty Jones), a stereotypically macho three-tour veteran who soon proves to be cannon fodder; and bookish Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), who exists principally so someone can be seen reading John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra. As in Lions for Lambs, the actors gamely deliver didactic lines that would be more effective in some bare-stage theatrical harangue than in a movie that professes to be set in a real place.
De Palma’s outrage—which he underscores with a concluding series of genuine photos of slain innocent Iraqis—is not in doubt. He wants to confront viewers with the hideous crime at the film’s center and to have them understand it as a real-life metaphor for the devastation visited on Iraq by a small cadre of arrogant, incompetent war planners (and their many journalistic enablers). Yet the director is just not a realist, as is shown by contrived names like “Reno Flake” and snippets from a laughably self-important (and, again, fake) French documentary that includes a close-up of a sweat bead’s progress down a checkpoint sentry’s face. Redacted means to be raw and galvanizing, but its multiformat artifice is actually distancing. For all its cleverness, the movie is as easy to discount as all those TV-news reports that have yet to arouse Americans to stop the Iraq War.