Brian De Palma’s paradoxical take on the occupation of Iraq is as blatant as an open sore yet swathed in layers of formalist irony. The film depicts members of a U.S. military patrol as blunt caricatures in an old-school morality play: Two soldiers rape an Iraqi girl and murder her family while others are too busy wrestling with their consciences to intervene. Though the story is adapted from a real-life incident, it is also a restaging of De Palma’s Vietnam film Casualties of War, and the bilious tone of the proceedings may reflect the director’s frustration with having previously crafted a war movie that, while cinematically dazzling and entertaining, was ineffective in preventing history from repeating itself. Perhaps borne from this frustration, Redacted is a multivalent inquiry into how this current war is being told, and by whom, at times denying the viewer conventional movie gratification if only to engage them elsewhere.
The action is centered primarily on Private Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), an aspiring filmmaker intent on using footage shot with his mini DV camera for the purpose of applying to film school. His opportunistic motives become blatant when he serves as a willing accomplice to the rape and murders of Iraqis, and as the filmmaker within the film, Salazar is a stand-in for De Palma insofar as his actions acknowledge the director’s own filming of atrocity as an act of exploitation. De Palma’s ambivalence toward his surrogate is more pronounced in how he depicts Salazar’s handheld cinema in smooth hi-def rather than grainy, jittery DV. Instead of aspiring for full verisimilitude, De Palma’s approximation suggests a more critical distancing that insists on scrutinizing the image rather than consuming it whole.
De Palma takes similar approaches in mimicking many other types of media coverage of Iraq. A fake French documentary Barrage that incorporates prettily composed pans across a security checkpoint set to portentous music cribbed from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, stands in sharp contrast to the visceral simulated footage of an Iraqi news team following a woman shot to death at the same checkpoint. Online videos, whether from American civilians expressing support for their troops or Muslim terrorists broadcasting their gruesome victories over those same soldiers, are treated with similar detachment as outposts of the new global media matrix. Perhaps the most dubious footage is that of the soldiers captured on surveillance camera as they plot the rape: Surveillance cameras typically don’t have audio, and the footage looks like a filmed theater workshop. While moments like these may feel amateurish, they call into question the limits of what De Palma’s filmmaking, or any filmmaking, can capture of the reality in Iraq.
That none of this footage matches the authenticity of any of the media it references is beside the point; those looking for real-life versions of these videos can easily find them online or on DVD. Perhaps a better version of Redacted could be made of the seemingly endless real video footage readily available from a stunning array of sources and perspectives. In the meantime, De Palma has offered a film both emotionally crude and formally sophisticated, a Michael Moore-meets-Lars von Trier war movie, whose chief value is in its ambition to take stock of the many ways that war is being consumed today.