Brian De Palma is known for his use of cinema to examine the distancing effects of viewing events through the filter of technology, the way that cameras and sound-recording technology can turn people into emotionally detached voyeurs. So while his new entry in the Iraq-war-drama genre, Redacted, is a stylistic departure from his typically opulent, cinematic visuals, thematically it remains very much a De Palma movie. As much as the filmmaker is concerned about what the U.S. is doing over in Iraq, he’s equally concerned with how those of us at home are processing it, whether through mainstream news reports or video blogs or documentary films or, hey, movies by veteran filmmakers, just like this one.
By building a critique of his movie into the movie itself, De Palma starts off by being defensive, but the ideas that he presents are worth exploring and offer a different perspective from most of the dull, earnest dramas about the war that have hit theaters over the past year. De Palma’s innovative way of presenting his material (re-creating the kind of media that filters information about the war) also shows promise. It’s too bad, then, that De Palma falls prey to some of the same faults as the makers of other, more traditional movies about the war: strident preachiness and characters that are more mouthpieces than people. De Palma’s efforts to make the film seem as “real” as possible only make it seem even less real when his mock-ups fail to approximate the things he’s trying to imitate.
He pieces together the story of a group of American soldiers raping and killing a 15-year-old Iraqi girl through various viewpoints, including most prominently the video diary of one soldier, along with footage from foreign news services, online videos, surveillance tapes and interrogation records. While this is a relatively unconventional narrative approach for a movie, it’s certainly not without precedent, and in a way it goes back to a much earlier tradition, playing like the cinematic equivalent of an epistolary novel.
And like an epistolary novel, Redacted often seems forced and artificial when it’s trying hardest to appear natural. The awkward dumping of information and opinions required of the characters in the video journal of soldier and aspiring filmmaker Angel (Izzy Diaz) is as clumsy as any expository sequence in your average war movie, each soldier getting a minute or two to explain his basic personality trait so we’ll know what to expect from him when the going gets tough. Angel cheerfully notes that the unit’s sojourn in Iraq has been uneventful so far, exemplifying the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing that De Palma continually employs.
The video diary, which is sometimes intense and immediate, is the best (and, fortunately, most frequent) device that De Palma relies on. Others are much less successful; segments meant to represent a French documentary on military life in Iraq seem more like a parody of serious filmmaking than an example of it, and the online videos shown in little squares on fake web pages are like a deliberately anti-cinematic intrusion into the movie.
The actors, all unknowns with minimal credits, are stiff and unconvincing, and their scenes of casual interaction are way too stagey to be believable. In De Palma’s typical heightened movie-movie style, this might have been an asset, but here it only calls attention to the fact that we’re seeing actors reciting lines rather than getting a real glimpse into the lives of soldiers on the front lines. No one would stumble upon a portion of this movie and mistake it for real amateur video or news footage.
Past its experimental style, Redacted turns out to be a fairly predictable narrative with stock characters, and although its points about the dehumanizing effects of warfare (like In the Valley of Elah, it paints an often unsympathetic portrait of individual soldiers) are timely and potentially devastating, the mannered delivery blunts their impact. De Palma cleverly indicts both himself and his audience, raising the question of whether we really think we’re making a difference just by watching (or making) a movie that critiques the war. He’s right; better to skip this film and write a letter to your congressman instead.
Rob Devaney, Izzy Diaz, Patrick Carroll, Daniel Stewart Sherman
Directed by Brian De Palma