by Tony Dayoub
Redacted, Brian De Palma's latest film, was released on DVD last month. It is loosely based on a real incident that took place in Iraq in which a squad of American soldiers rape a teenage girl in retaliation for the death of a buddy of theirs. Edited in an interesting manner that utilizes various conventions such as first-person journalistic accounts, web-based anecdotal supplements, and third-person documentary coverage, it is told with visual flair. Unfortunately, the immediacy that this technique delivers is undone by mannered performances and stilted dialogue.
Brian De Palma is a director known for challenging himself with visual acrobatics in much of his movies. Whether it is the one-take continuous tracking shot that follows Carlito Brigante through his nightclub in Carlito's Way, or the baby-carriage-falling-down-the-stairs homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, in The Untouchables, De Palma's visuals always succeed in drawing attention to themselves. They are displays that demonstrate his love for planning AND executing amazingly complicated shots. The Black Dahlia, one of his most disappointing and critically ravaged films, even managed to get an Oscar nomination for its cinematography. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Redacted shines in its compelling visual storytelling.
Redacted uses modern visual storytelling techniques and creative editing to do this. It starts with Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), an American soldier, visually documenting his unit's "true" experience in Iraq in an effort to use the video diary to get into film school. This is supplemented with video blog footage from other soldiers in his unit, their families, and even the enemies. There is also a documentary crew following this unit, as well as Al-Jazeera-like news coverage. All of these are unique in their use of film or video stock, editing style, and especially reliability. As this is all edited together from different sources, we learn that accuracy is suspect, and truth depends on not only what is shown but also what is not. Salazar only shoots the "truth" when it isn't detrimental to the way his unit will be perceived. When his unit raids a house to avenge the death of their buddy, he is up for filming that, too. It is only when hit by the full impact of the horror that they are about to commit, the rape of an innocent teen, that he turns the camera away, running out of the house. The news organization, the insurgents, and even the documentarians, are not above using their footage to shape the story they are telling to suit their aims. An extra tight shot and a lingering second longer on an Iraqi civilian telling his tragic story about his family's murder is enough to sway you to the documentarian's point of view.
De Palma had the perfect opportunity to present a devastating portrait of the Iraq war without preaching. It is disappointing, then, when his own moralistic views seep into the story. He wrote the screenplay for this, mining his own earlier indictment of American soldiers in a senseless war, Casualties of War. The plot is almost identical, soldiers raping an innocent girl, then covering it up... only that one takes place in Vietnam. Any realism achieved in his visual storytelling is undone by the artifice of the fact that this is essentially a remake of an earlier film of his. The mannered performances that he drew out of the actors also undermine the realism. Salazar may be the young and naive soldier hoping he could parlay his video journal into a shot to the big time. But Diaz plays him as a high school drama class student, excited that the war came along to give him his big shot at fame. None of the repetitive numbness, or disillusionment gained by first-hand experience in day-to-day combat comes through. The dialogue is overly theatrical and cliche. You'll get this, too, by the time Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) is using "Semper Fi!" to justify his decision to draw his fellow soldiers into raping and killing a "Haji".
Unintended by De Palma, I'm sure, is the amateurish documentary included in the special features section of the DVD titled "Refugee Interviews". While their stories do leave an impression, slowly the interviewer starts using these poor souls to promote the film. This is made all the more bizarre by the frequent faulty spelling and lack of basic grammar in the subtitles. Who let this get on the DVD like that?
As much as I admire Brian De Palma and his films, I can't recommend this one. Even though my opinions run along the same lines as the director's, the film feels too much like propaganda when it doesn't necessarily need to.