Friday, March 28, 2008


“…a loathsome, crude, amateurish and grotesque assault on our troops in Iraq … a wretched, irresponsible film that richly deserves the public rejection it will, inevitably, receive.” – Micheal Medved

“…De Palma admits he made the film to hurt the Iraq war effort ... [De Palma is a] vile man and [Redacted is a] vile film ... If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it's on Brian de Palma ... During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison.” – Bill O’Reilly

Not many people saw Brian De Palma’s Iraq war film Redacted (the title means to suppress by censorship), certainly not enough for De Palma to bear responsibility for all future deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. Most only know of the film from ranting pundits like Medved and O’Reilly, the first a “film critic” by title only, the second long ago having had his motivations called into question by the maddening documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. And that is a shame. While not perfect, by any means, Redacted is a fascinating and important piece of work. It is important as a somewhat fumbling first foray into promising new territory by one of America’s most complex and compelling filmmakers. It is also important as a statement of outrage. It is unforgivable that in a “democratic” nation people must resort to rummaging around on the Internet to learn what is going on in the world.

Essentially, Redacted is Brian De Palma’s Noam Chomsky-fueled response to how he sees the events in Iraq being censored by the media. Chomsky famously pointed out in books like Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies that the American media acts as a highly efficient propaganda machine – though not necessarily with conscious intent. He points out that Justice Powell’s ideal (“By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment.”) has given way to James Mill’s view (The media’s role is to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government.”). De Palma, longtime radical-minded guy that he is, definitely agrees with Chomsky.

And this frustration with the media informs the film’s structure. Based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, Redacted is a fictionalized recreation of those and surrounding events as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet, an American soldier’s home video, a French documentary, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. This is all edited together to create an impression of what took place, or a very rough approximation really. What we see is far removed from the level of detail and the well-rounded portrayal of the characters involved that would be presented by a talented journalist following the story start-to-finish, which is De Palma’s point.

Through this collage-like approach, employing digital video throughout, De Palma has used Redacted as an opportunity to explore the very implications of the documentary form. The film is like the ultimate faux-documentary turned inside-out to peer at its own inner organs. In an early scene, we are shown a soldier looking down at the ground to watch a scorpion being devoured by ants. This is framed within a French documentary titled Checkpoint and seems to be either making a comment on the sadism of the American soldier(s) or on the way American soldiers are being overcome by Iraqi insurgents or on how the documentary’s director watched Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch too many times – or all three. What’s easy to miss though is De Palma’s interest here in how cleverly – and potentially deceptively – documentary films are constructed. We never see the soldier and the scorpion/ants in the same shot. The shot the soldier appears to be looking at could’ve been lifted straight out of Peckinpah’s western for all we know.

This almost invisibly playful examination of documentary ethics finds even more compelling expression in later scenes. A car is shown driving up to a checkpoint and then we are suddenly inside the car looking out. This heightens the dramatic effect of the scene, but how is it possible? We can see as the car drives up that there is no cameraman sitting in the front seat, plus the cars in the two shots are clearly different. Once again, the documentary filmmakers have pieced a scene together out of footage shot possibly days apart to create an effect. In a later scene, one of the American soldiers wields his camcorder but swish-pans quickly back and forth between two bits of action, torn between which should hold his focus. All documentaries are only as true as the 45 degrees or so of action the camera captured. The other 315 degrees only exist in some alternate universe with the camera pointed elsewhere.

This sort of intellectual gamesmanship is exactly what De Palma’s fans have learned to expect from him. He is the man, after all, who made it his mission to teach us about the deceptive qualities of the cinema. He famously inverted Jean-Luc Godard’s line about the truth of images (“film is truth, 24 times a second”) to form his own dictum which is repeated verbatim in Redacted by one of the soldiers (“[that] camera lies all the time”).

De Palma fans also expect his films to be highly self-referential. He has always been obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (even remaking it at one point under the title Obsession). The central dilemma in Vertigo involves a character named Scottie who loses – or so it seems – his lover due to his failure to act at a crucial moment. This has been reanimated like a recurring nightmare throughout a great many of De Palma’s films from Carrie and Blow Out to his criminally underrated Mission to Mars and The Black Dahlia. And a soldier’s failure to act and save the life of the Iraqi girl in Redacted is the source of much of the films' anguish.

De Palma earlier made the Vietnam War drama Casualties of War about a soldier failing not once but twice to save the life of a Vietnamese girl. Actually, De Palma’s Vietnam and Iraq war films tell virtually the same (based on true) stories of American soldiers venting their frustrations over a fallen comrade (as well as sexual frustrations; both films are filled with homophobic rage; Redacted has a telling moment where a soldier misunderstands his being called a war virgin and berates “I’m not a virgin!” and many scenes in Redacted are decorated top to bottom with images from men’s magazines) by raping and killing a young girl. Both end with their “hero” tormented by his failure to prevent the tragedy.

Redacted is also a throwback to early 1960s overtly radical De Palma movies like Greetings and Hi, Mom complete with a sense of playfulness and humor and the joking labeling of characters. A rubber ducky makes an appearance very unexpectedly and a scene between the two “heavies” is punctuated by squawks emanating from one man’s bird-shaped hat every time he adjusts it. The embedded journalists in several scenes run around like headless chickens with signs fixed to their jackets reading “Press.” And the dumb, fat bad guy recruit is simply referred to as “Rush.” (Okay, maybe De Palma took that one too far.) Redacted is laced with a surprising amount of sly humor.

Ignoring the inane “criticisms” of Medved and O’Reilly, I do have a few criticisms of my own – many echoed by other critics. For a film that is supposedly constructed out of scraps of this and that found here and there, Redacted seems too elegantly composed, the shots just a bit too perfect in their framing. After some thought though, I no longer find this to be a valid criticism. The most obvious offenders are the scenes taking place within the French-made documentary and the home-movie footage of one of the soldiers (Angel Salazar). But, the French documentary is clearly intended as a very elegantly and professionally made piece, more Pare Lorentz than Maysles Brothers, complete with a musical score right out of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s a spoof of documentaries at their most manipulative and pretentious. It should be well-composed. Salazar intends to use his footage as an audition film for USC Film School. He should be wielding the camera with care.

Many have knocked the film for having “terrible” acting and I suppose they are correct, at least to a point. De Palma is taking aim at character types with Redacted and, much like his radical counterpart George Romero did in Day of the Dead, he resorts to grotesque stereotypes to make his points. No beating around the bush with the bad guys in either film. They are simply bad. I do think Redacted’s performances within this context are quite effective though. The evil seems to find surprising new twists of expression from each moment to the next. De Palma is also back to games again with the acting. One of my favorite aspects of documentary film is how people have a natural way of turning into actors – and often very bad ones – when a camera is pointed at them. Redacted makes conscious commentary on this by breaking a pivotal scene in half, first with the characters aware of their being filmed, second with their being tricked into thinking the camera has been turned off. The subtle changes in behavior are fascinating. At another point, Salazar dons a hidden camera on his helmet saying, “I don’t want the guys getting camera-shy.”

My only real criticism of Redacted is that the first scene is too heavy-handed. One of the soldiers says the first casualty of the war will be “the truth.” Salazar then gives a speech about the film he is making not having any sense of conventional narrative or Hollywood drama. He of course says this into the camera as a direct comment from De Palma to us about Redacted. These statements of theme and method are simply too blunt and too awkward. They’ve sent my eyes rolling every time I’ve watched the film.

Fortunately, while Redacted starts off badly, it ends on an amazingly powerful note. In a sequence titled “Collateral Damage,” we see a series of photographs of war victims (eyes covered by black bars in an ironic instance of redaction that irked De Palma but oddly works to the film’s benefit) culminating with an artfully faked photo of the teenage rape and murder victim (whose burned remains we haven’t yet seen) and a surge of music that leaves my hair standing on end every time. Wow, I get chills just thinking about it.


Adam Zanzie said...

Great piece, Todd! Your comments on [i]Redacted[/i] are, indeed, similar to my own. It's funny, though, how we're bothered by opposite things. You find the "truth" line to be annoying, though I find it poetic. I have issues with the final montages, which you find to drive the film's point home. I can easily understand both arguments.

You are correct that the film was unfairly bashed by the right. And I don't believe for a second that FDR would have jailed De Palma. The fact that Lyndon Johnson refused a second term as president because Walter Cronkite was criticizing the war on the air means that presidents really DO care about what the media (and occasionally Hollywood) has to say about the wars they involve America in. If we had had a president wiser than Bush in the White House, he might have even been influenced by [i]Redacted[/i]. Who knows?

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