by A.J. Hakari
2007 saw the last big year that mainstream cinema became seriously politically-charged. Rendition, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, and others sought to comment on and inspire dialogue about how the ongoing Iraq war affected our lives, for better or worse. The trouble is that hardly a soul saw any damn one of them, least of all Brian De Palma’s Redacted. Of all such chronicles made regarding the combat experience, this is among the bleakest and least conventional in appearance, presented as a collage of footage gathered from various forms of media. But crystal-clear as its position is on how easily hatred can consume someone in the setting it depicts, Redacted is all shock and no awe, wallowing in 90 minutes of moral ugliness with no visible point to make except that it exists.
Redacted takes place during the summer of 2006, focusing on an Army unit in Samarra manning a security checkpoint. One of the soldiers, Angel (Izzy Diaz), has brought along his trusty camcorder, hoping to use footage of his tour of duty to get into film school when he returns stateside. But as we come to see, he’s not the only one around with a camera, as material from embedded journalists, a French documentary crew, and amateur video uploads provide perspectives on the shocking events that soon follow. The unit’s killing of a pregnant woman and her child in a misunderstanding kicks off a series of retaliatory attacks, which quickly escalate into an unsanctioned raid that comes to test where their loyalty to one another ends and justice begins.
De Palma based Redacted on a real-life atrocity committed by U.S. soldiers on a young Iraqi girl, though it’s by his own admission heavily fictionalized. Knowing his hands were tied to the point of being as distanced from the actual tragedy as much as possible, it’s no wonder that De Palma’s final product comes out looking as scattershot as it does. Francois Truffaut said that the thrill of combat captured on film made it impossible for there to be a truly anti-war picture, but Redacted sure works overtime to prove him otherwise. De Palma is upfront about the horrors committed not only by the film’s mostly unseen insurgents but a lot of the soldiers themselves, but in terms of developing an actual plot, little is done beyond pointing them out.
I get that De Palma intends to show the effects of patriotism, intense heat, and glaring death in the face every day warping the psyches of certain characters. But Redacted imparts no sense of progression in this area; from the start, almost all of the soldiers are drawn as racist, slur-slinging, mentally-unbalanced neanderthals, and so they remain until the ending credits. Some are eventually compelled to take action, but it comes awfully late in the game to effectively balance out the jingoism and fallen comrades one soldier uses to excuse his intentions to rape an innocent girl. Throughout all this, De Palma remains constantly poised to deflect any criticism with, “Stuff like this can happen, y’know,” which I don’t doubt but which doesn’t make the film any less unpleasant to watch for all the wrong reasons.
Redacted has a lot of other elements working against it, as well. The various bits of footage never feel completely authentic (Cloverfield was photographed with greater realism), and for every solid performance the mostly inexperienced cast churns out, two or three hammy turns are there to ruin what little illusion is left. Redacted is a call to action that’s missing a call, rubbing your face in cruelty and grimness but leaving out what we the viewers are supposed to do about it.