Acid flashback or déjà vu? Who, having lived through the late '60s, would have anticipated re-experiencing the spectacle of an arrogantly mendacious U.S. administration bogged down in an ill-conceived, bungled, costly, and apparently endless counterinsurgency? (Although who familiar with American history could doubt its recurrence?)
Iraq isn't Vietnam. Yet, pinned down in the Mesopotamian desert rather than an Indochinese jungle, U.S. technological supremacy is confounded, with atrocious unintended consequences. It's not surprising that Viet-vet PTSD disability-compensation cases have doubled since George W. Bush declared our mission accomplished — or that, reading about American soldiers who raped a 14-year-old girl and murdered her family, Brian De Palma would feel compelled to remake his 1989 Viet-nightmare Casualties of War under the title Redacted.
Powerful, polarizing, and disturbing even in the context of the war's ongoing horror stories, Redacted was made in Jordan over 18 days for $5 million, and has a credibly sunblasted look. De Palma, however, operates at once removed: "Welcome to the oven," Baghdad-based Private Angel "Sally" Salazar (Izzy Diaz) tells the presumed audience for the video journal he's keeping in the hope it will get him into film school. Much of the action is filtered through Sally's camera and tempered by his fatuous Godardian promise of "truth 24 times a second." Everything else is played out on an assortment of blogs, security cams, YouTube rants, Iraqi news reports, and jihadist Web sites.
De Palma is consistent in this fractured multimedia methodology, as well as in his cinematic jouissance — at one point fabricating an arty French documentary, replete with symphonic music and Wild Bunch homage, to show Sally and his unit administering a checkpoint. This "professional" movie enables De Palma to establish that, of the 2,000 Iraqi civilians killed at coalition checkpoints, only 60 were ever identified as insurgents.
Redacted revives Casualties' sense of men sent on a senseless mission to a country they'll never understand and acknowledges the conditions under which American soldiers live. The paranoia is ultra-Nam, and so is the alienation. The central atrocity is set in motion when the unit's know-it-all sergeant is vaporized by a roadside bomb. But these young Americans are not the fiercely centered warriors of Gregory Burke's play, Black Watch; they are crude, less-than-sympathetic constructions De Palma has assembled from blogs, home videos, and embedded documentaries like Gunner Palace. The war is pitched somewhere between reality TV and America's Funniest Home Videos. Put on the spot by Sally's camera, his comrades reflexively recite official talking points: "We're looking for weapons of mass destruction" cues the central crime. Sally is likable, if amoral; when he's grotesquely punished, his sentimental buddies take over the doc. ("He was our very own Private Ryan," the worst of them muses.)
De Palma is no less a wise guy than he was when he made his Viet-era indies Greetings or Hi, Mom!, and Redacted is filled with sophomoric shock humor. An angry questioner at De Palma's New York Film Festival press conference accused him of making a "hipster horror film." Redacted is hardly that reductive, but it certainly reflects De Palma's career-long interest in voyeurism and violence, implicating spectator and filmmaker alike. This all figured in Casualties of War, but there's a difference between making a movie about a war that's 15 years over and one happening today.
Opening amid a momentary lull in public antipathy for Bush's war — attributable to an otherwise incompetent administration's sensational ability to repress images and control the story — Redacted has been variously attacked as arty, cartoonish, and even overly familiar. One might similarly characterize Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings; earlier this year, Philip Haas' noir analysis The Situation was dismissed in comparable terms. But whatever their temperaments, Botero, Haas, and De Palma are fashioning something other than propaganda. Redacted wasn't made to change your mind, but to unburden De Palma's. Tense, sometimes grating, and emotionally exhausting, the movie ends with a snapshot montage of actual atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians. These bloody images, which De Palma found on the Internet, are set to the stately Handel sarabande that ends Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, providing an in-your-face coda of the sort used to far stronger effect in Lars von Trier's hitherto abstract Dogville.
De Palma's distributor, Magnolia, has redacted these photographs, using black bars to obscure the identity of the dead and brutalized Iraqis. The filmmaker has made no secret of his displeasure, but such censorship only reinforces his point that this war has been — from the outset — profoundly and continuously misrepresented. Indeed, the coda is unnecessary, even a distraction: The movie has already assaulted us by dramatizing the absence of oversight (and De Palma actually undercuts his insistence on the real by staging the final image). The most authentic thing about Redacted is the rage with which it was made.