Redacted, d. Brian DePalma, 2007
Starring: A bunch of people you've never heard of or seen before and probably won't see again
"You don't want to hear a war story," says one of the main characters to a group of civilian friends at the end of the movie. And unfortunately, Brian DePalma spends most of the movie trying to prove that character right.
Now, conventional wisdom on Redacted, when it came out, was that Brian DePalma had turned in a shrill and ridiculously one-sided anti-war film with very little of his usual skill. And this is what even relatively sympathetic film critics said. In this case, conventional wisdom is right.
The plot, so far as there is one, is that it follows a few Marines serving in Samarra in 2006. Eventually, a couple of particularly awful Marines rape a 15 year old Iraqi girl and kill most of her family, claiming at various points that they were fighting insurgents, that it was a Sunni revenge killing, and that is was a Shiite revenge killing. This is all shown through various sources, including one Marine's video-recordings of his unit (in hopes of using it for a reality tv show or film school), a French documentary team, various blogs & youtube videos, security cameras and news footage.
The idea of the film, I think, is an interesting one. Trying to replicate the chopped-up news cycle & the multiplicity of viewpoints emerging around the Iraq War is a noble and interesting idea. In how many previous wars could civilians, with a minimum of effort, see the reaction of the occupied people without any intermediating authority. And when DePalma is merely presenting the contrast between Al-Jazeera, the French documentary team and a CNN stand-in's approaches deadpan, he gets across the problematic nature of the occupation and the way America's own POV prevents it from seeing those problems.
Unfortunately, most of the film is populated with one-note shrill stereotypes of Americans spouting on-the-nose dialogue when they're not doing horrible things. This is the kind of film where, six minutes in, one person says, "the camera never lies" and another person immediately responds, "the camera always lies". To a tiny extent, there might be moments when DePalma could have been arguing about the self-performative nature people develop when they know they're being recorded. But the fact so much of the Marine's documentary footage happens when the others don't know they're being recorded takes away that argument.
You'll notice I haven't really named any of the characters. That's because, with maybe one exception, all the characters make the space marines in Aliens seem complex and multi-faceted. It doesn't help that one character is unironically named Vasquez. One redneck soldier even calls himself a "wildcard", sparking images of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie's hilariously pointless idiocy.
Every moment is so heavy-handed that even the documented incident that inspired this film starts to feel false. DePalma even compromises the (relative) integrity of his approach at the end by giving home video footage of the hero Lawyer McCoy (Robb DeVaney) giving an impassioned (if creaky) speech about the horrors of war and underlining it WITH A PROFESSIONAL HOLLYWOOD SOUNDTRACK! It's like DePalma is taking his stylistic cues from The Notebook!
Now, you can make a movie about horrible people doing awful things and make it interesting, but you have to display some empathy. But DePalma has our war criminals be the most brain-dead, racist sons-of-bitches you'll ever see. Robb DeVaney's character, the nominative good guy, is given some good moments and he rises to the occasion. But everyone else is given clunky dialogue, nonsensical motivations and the mostly non-professional actors respond by turning in awful performances.
Weirdly enough, the people playing Iraqis are really good, when they are given any screen-time. It might help that DePalma plays those moments unaffected and keeps the language simple.
And sadly, DePalma does have some good visual moments. Whether it's the echo of blood-spatter from an early checkpoint shoot-out in a Jihadi execution, or a flowing, surreal long-take of the checkpoint screening that highlights the incomprehensibility of the process, DePalma hasn't lost his touch with mise-en-scene. One of the early heavy-handed moments (a reading from Appointment in Samarra) is nicely undercut by the presence, right behind the reader, of cut-outs from pin-up magazines. In fact, the movie might play better left on mute.
In some ways, this movie is the opposite of another War on Terror flop, Richard Kelley's Southland Tales. Where Kelly's movie was sprawling and needlessly complex, DePalma's is shrill and to-the-point. Where Kelly stranded brilliant performances by actors in a go-nowhere plot, DePalma weds beautiful imagery to headache-inducing performances.
The most effective moment of the film is the closing "Collateral Damage" sequence, where DePalma presents a series of bloody photographs showing the civilians injured or killed by Iraq War violence. A movie about the innocents trying to survive both insurgents and the U.S. military could be effective, moving and reach across partisan talking points. Too bad no one's interested in making that film.