Brian De Palma’s Redacted is a movie that gives war criticism a bad name. It’s a nasty piece of work—and not in a good way. He means to shock, but his film is merely distasteful. He thinks he’s exposing the hidden horrors of war, but it comes off more like The Last House on the Left than Goya or even the jailhouse photos from Abu Ghraib. Some have denounced the film as anti-American or as propaganda for al-Qaida, but that exaggerates its potency. De Palma’s grist is too thin for a sophisticated terrorist’s mill.
The film’s structure is very clever. Rather than making a straight drama, as he did with Casualties of War (his similarly themed Vietnam movie of 18 years ago), De Palma designs Redacted to look like a pastiche of documentary footage covering an American unit in Iraq—some of it seemingly shot by a French news crew, some by a soldier who aspires to be a film student, some taken from jihadist clips on the Internet, but, in fact, all of it staged with actors and shot by De Palma.
In the first 20 minutes or so, the technique works. We see the troops guarding a checkpoint in the blazing heat, bored, fatigued, yet racked with tension—a tragic combination when a car comes zooming out of nowhere, the driver refuses to stop, and a soldier, pumped with fear and adrenaline, opens fire, and (as has often happened in real-life situations) kills innocent civilians.
I’ve never manned a checkpoint in the desert sun for hours on end, day after day (or done anything remotely like it), but some who have tell me those scenes capture the sensation well.
But as the film slogs on, the real world recedes to schlock fantasy. The key scene comes when two of the Americans—both psychopaths, one fatter than any active-duty combat Marine or soldier would be allowed to be—decide, late one night, to go rape and kill a teenage girl they’ve seen walking along their patrol route every day and, while they’re at it, to murder her family. (The aspiring film student comes along with a helmet-mounted camera equipped with a night-viewing lens.)
The scene, as expected, is horrible. But because the Iraqis are ciphers and the rapist-murderers are cartoon villains (while doing the deed, one of them even goes, “Hooo-wha-ha-ha-ha-ha!“), it evokes no emotion—certainly not the rage that De Palma is trying to elicit. He has said that he hopes the film’s “images will get the public incensed enough to get their congressmen to vote against the war.” One wonders: Is he a knave or a fool? The real war hardly lacks for horrific images or eloquent critics. Does De Palma seriously believe that his film will be the tipping point? (Dear Senator: I have just learned that ghastly things are happening in Iraq! Please bring our troops home now!)
But more than its sheer tawdriness, what is De Palma saying about war—or about this war? It might have been one thing if he were saying that the inherent savagery of war turns ordinary men into savages. But he goes out of the way to make clear that the two ringleaders of the rape raid were psychopaths long before they came to Iraq. (In one scene, one of them boasts about his brother’s string of murders back home, while the other chuckles in admiration.)
The horror scene, as has been widely reported, is based on a real incident that took place in March 2006 in Mahmudiyah, a village south of Baghdad, where a U.S. Army private named Steven Green was charged with doing precisely what the psychos in Redacted do: raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, shooting her, and murdering her family. Green was every recruitment officer’s nightmare: a troubled kid, a high-school dropout with a G.E.D. who’d racked up a few convictions on drug and alcohol charges, who was let in the Army as it was lowering standards to meet enlistment targets—and, under pressure, turned out not to have reformed after all.
The Mahmudiyah rampage is regarded as the U.S. military’s most depraved atrocity in Iraq. But what is De Palma suggesting it (or his fictionalized version of it) typifies? Certainly, he doesn’t mean his film to be an indictment of the Army’s lax recruitment standards. That would be a bit wonkish for such high-artsy drama. Does he mean it as a metaphor? If so, for what? For war in general? For the U.S. invasion? Is he saying America is a nation of psychopaths? It’s muddled, and the muddle saps whatever power a film like this might have had.
The film ends with photos of real-life victims of the Iraq war, though it’s impossible to tell who they are, how they were killed, or who killed them. Is De Palma saying it doesn’t matter? The final photo, he’s told interviewers, is fake. Is he saying that doesn’t matter, either?
Redacted isn’t a critique of war or of America’s behavior in this war. It isn’t sharp enough for that; it’s too crude, callow, and one-dimensional. It’s nothing deeper than war porn.