‘Redacted’: Battle Casualty, By Kurt Loder

Brian De Palma is angry about the Iraq war. Pass it on.

What is there left to say about the Hollywood assumption that Americans are too clueless to realize that war is hell, that the war in Iraq is particularly troubling and that only moral instruction from, well, Hollywood can bring a benighted nation to its senses? Moviegoers have already signaled their disdain. Three recent antiwar pictures that reflect the film colony’s imperious self-regard — “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Lions for Lambs” — have been quickly fitted with box-office body bags. Soon they’ll be joined by “Redacted,” the talky, torpid, borderline-hysterical new movie by Brian De Palma.

The picture’s conceptual incoherence is clear at the outset, when we’re told that it was “inspired by an incident widely reported to have happened in Iraq.” What can this possibly mean? The atrocity at the center of “Redacted” isn’t some sort of rumor; it’s a well-established fact. In March of 2006, in a village south of Baghdad, five U.S. Army soldiers broke into the home of an Iraqi family; some of them murdered the mother and father and their 5-year-old daughter, then gang-raped their 14-year-old daughter, shot her in the head and set her body and the house afire. (The blaze was apparently an attempt to make the attack look like the work of terrorist insurgents.)

The movie’s implication is that such horrific incidents are not unusual, but that they’re covered up by the military and the craven mainstream media. This is possible, of course. But the contention is unpersuasive in this particular case, since all five of the soldiers involved were arrested and charged, and three have been tried and sentenced to 90, 100 and 110 years in prison — information the movie declines to convey. The alleged ringleader of the group, Pfc. Steven D. Green, was discharged from the Army before the crime was reported by another soldier three months after it happened; Green will be tried in a federal court in Kentucky, and prosecutors are reportedly seeking the death penalty. (Green is a high school dropout with a record of drug and alcohol problems that was disregarded by the Army when he enlisted; he had already been identified as having “homicidal ideations” while serving in Iraq, and he was discharged after 16 months because of an “antisocial personality disorder.” The Army’s alarmingly lax recruiting standards are an important issue, but De Palma — convinced that it’s the unjust war itself that turns young soldiers into monsters, not the problems they bring with them to the battle — doesn’t address it.)

De Palma is a skillful filmmaker who seems to have fallen on semihard times. His last big hit was the 1996 “Mission: Impossible”; his previous movie, “The Black Dahlia,” an L.A. period piece shot mainly in Bulgaria, bombed. This picture was commissioned by HDNet chief Mark Cuban, who wondered if the director would be interested in shooting on video. He was. All kinds of video, actually: “Redacted” is a mosaic of faux footage harvested from the film’s ubiquitous GI vidcams and blogs, terrorist and antiwar Web sites, military surveillance cameras, even a French TV documentary (also faux, of course).

Unfortunately, this jumble of flat visual tones and wandering narrative focus leaves De Palma — a man who knows where to put an actual movie camera and how to dance it around in an often dazzling manner — in a creative straitjacket for much of the picture. There are some startling bursts of action (and the tightly edited rape scene is appalling without being exploitative), but they’re enclosed by static stretches of aimless barracks japery, drinking and card-playing, especially in the film’s first half. Tedium sets in quickly. And the necessity to tell the story through supposedly “found” footage leads to some awkward improbabilities. When we see one of the soldiers warning another not to breathe a word to anyone about the murders, we wonder why he’s chosen to impart this admonition while standing in front of a surveillance camera.

Movie-star faces would have been inappropriate in a film like this, but “unknown” actors can also be resourceful and compelling. The actors here are competent, but they’re used mainly to embody war-movie clichés. One character is quiet and bookish, another smart and personable, another an amiable jester. The two really bad guys are cartoons, one of them a standard-issue brutal slob, the other — the Green character — a nasty drunk. (We know he’s extra-rotten because at one point we see him sprawled on a chair that’s draped with a Confederate flag — in the terms of Hollywood iconography, he may as well have the Number of the Beast tattooed on his forehead.)

De Palma’s use of an abominable crime as an emblem of U.S. conduct in Iraq is a gross insult to American soldiers who’ve never done such things — which is to say, the overwhelming majority of them. But the director thinks he’s courageously lobbing a truth-grenade into the cultural conflict over the Iraq war, and no doubt he’s hoping that any attendant controversy will help sell tickets. Recently, he’s been trumpeting his own victimization by the great media-military war machine: Because the movie’s distributor felt compelled to mask the faces in a collage of actual bloody bodies at the end of the film, De Palma claims that his own movie has been “redacted.” It seems not to have occurred to him that the families of those dead people might resent his use of their identifiable corpses to score a facile political point.

“People will be arguing over this film,” De Palma said, hopefully, in an interview with Sky News last spring. Maybe they will. First they’ll have to want to sit through it, though.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Redacted.”

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