Was Brian De Palma joking when he said he made Redacted to stop the war in Iraq? For the past 30 years he hasnt made a movie that got people to simply go to the movies.
The last time De Palmas instincts were in sync with popular taste was in 1987, with The Untouchables. His 1996 Mission: Impossible was really a Tom Cruise hit machine (visually elegant but not De Palmas finest hour). Redacted looks like a hasty, colorless attempt by this usually dazzling, idiosyncratic director to hitch a ride on the caravan of limousine liberal Iraq War-protestors.
De Palma dramatizes the 2006 Mahmudiya incident (where five U.S. soldiers raped and killed an Iraqi woman) as if making Casualties of War IIrecalling his 1989 drama about a similar event in the Vietnam War. Its the same bleak condemnation seen in Paul Haggiss rotten In the Valley of Elah, which uses a murder mystery plot to slander Iraq War veterans. Instead of probing the moral chaos of young Americans pressed into a situation that forces them to barbarismor maybe heroismDe Palma uses the war for an uninviting formalist exercise. Of course, Redacteds more sophisticated than Haggis sappy pandering (its not hawkish, its mawkish), but in the end, its just as sanctimonious.
Renaming Mahmudiya as Samarra tips off De Palmas fatuous methods. Bookish Pvt. Blix (Kel ONeil) reads John OHaras 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra while his barracks-mates read Hustler. De Palma integrates OHaras use of Somerset Maughams epigram Death Speaks for a high-toned allusion to fate and mortality. But Maughams irony doesnt apply to a war drama where fate and mortality are a given. De Palma hasnt thought through what to say about war. But then he instinctively complicates the conceit by stockpiling diverse technological perspectives: Sequences sample either a soldiers video diary, Internet webcasts, surveillance camera footage, Al Jazeera broadcasts, even a French liberal-TV documentary with hokey editing transitions from a generic software package. This inconclusive media jumble may be anti-war fodder for those who cant get enough slant on the war, but its essentially a technocrats quandary. Moviegoers familiar with self-reflexive strategies by Iranian filmmakers Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami will be ahead of the game and casual filmgoers wont carea sign that De Palma is in deeper trouble than ever.
Because Redacted is the first film by a major artist to address the Iraq War, its sketchiness is maddening. The title insinuates media and government censorship, the fear that the Pentagon and corporate media have collectively kept war crimes from public knowledgesomething not even French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard has ever dared. But the rules of cinematic engagement have changed since both Godard and De Palma made their first analyses of pop cultures relation to contemporary politics. Redacteds bald, humorless title feels desperate, like De Palmas defection to digital-video fashiondesperate to keep up.
For a cinema aesthete, thats practically a capitulation to terrorism. Redacted was financed by HD-Net and released by Magnolia Films to capitalize on digital video economics through tandem theatrical and DVD markets. But theres no excitementno visual thrallin Redacteds testing-out new ways of seeing. De Palmas like a kid discovering the Internet, presuming that it liberates all information, then grousing that the technology doesnt solve political or private problems. The trouble is that De Palma confuses his personal geek alarm with geopolitical concern. After all these years of insouciance, sex and existentialism, De Palma goes didactic and moralistic, declaring: The movie is an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people. The pictures are what will stop the war. One only hopes that these images will get the public incensed enough to get their congressmen to vote against the war.
Pamphleteering aint De Palmas style. He needs fictionthe imagining of danger, humor, lust and dreadto make sense of the world (as in Femme Fatale, The Fury, Blow Out and Hi, Mom!) or else he winds up with a shallow apolitical resolve. The vaguely propagandistic Redacted is less a rallying cry for peace (a naive aim made explicit in a final speech) than a big-screen rhetorical nightmare. If Michael Moore knew how to make movies he might have made Redacted.
In his career confusion, De Palma seeks approval from those who dismissed his last war film. He has been rewarded with backhanded complimentsa Best Director prize from the wonky Venice Film Festival jury and his first-ever selected invitation from the New York Film Festival. At Redacteds Lincoln Center premiere, De Palma reportedly boasted, Its taken me 40 years to get into the New York Film Festival. A Festival spokesman even admitted to Variety, If you had told me we would never show a De Palma film, I would have said, Thats probably true.
Obviously, Redacted has amassed more gravitas than De Palmas masterpieces only because it kowtows to culture-brokers political biases. This is more than a personal insult; its another indication of how off-kilter film culture has become since 9/11. The medias rush to validate a weak De Palma film continues last years insanity that overpraised the TV-style docudrama United 93, misconstrued Oliver Stones great elegy World Trade Center and overrated the outdated 1969 French import Army of Shadows. Critics shied away from post-9/11 reality, yearning for the political certainties of the 60s, dreaming of the strictly-drawn sides of WWII Resistance fighters rather than countenance the Iraq Wars perplexity. But Redacted isnt resistance; its head-in-the-sand nostalgia. De Palma reaches back to his earliest featuresthe counterculture comedies Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), the first American films to brave anti-draft attitude. Today, those films are better known as comedies than for their sense of political paranoia. De Palmas sophomoric impudence made it easy to laugh off anxiety about the Vietnam war and 60s political assassinations yet they contained genuine malaiseand it remained a profound undercurrent in his movies. It is the knife-edge of his genre satires.
Having once helped create the counterculture, De Palma now panders to what has become the dominant culture. With Redacted, he joins ranks with Hollywoods irresponsible and self-righteous mob, but their rebellion is different from an artists necessary single-mined concentration and sensitivity. Politically angled scenes where U.S. checkpoint guards open fire on a pregnant woman make Redacted fit with trendy filmmakers like Haggis and Michael Winterbottom who glibly disparage the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Its as if De Palma was indeed what his blind detractors have always claimed: a copycat.
De Palmas wit was ahead of the curve in Greetings and especially the culture and media-spoof Hi, Mom!; now hes behind the eight ball. Redacted opens itself to the obnoxious rabble-rousing of right-wing fanatics like Bill OReilly because it carelessly blames the war on the young men who fight it. As De Palmas war story begins, an American soldier in Iraq holds a camera, looks in a mirror, then announces The first casualty is gonna be the truth. That snark, adapted from war correspondents wisdom, is not a new thought, but a new cynicism. The soldier Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) wants to correct mainstream media versions of the war with his own video, promising, No smash cuts, no adrenaline-pumping soundtracks cuz basically, here, shit happens.
Such tired disillusionment keeps Redacted from focusing its point and actually critiquing Hollywood dishonesty. De Palmas ambivalence about the video age (its makers and consumers) contradicts his seeming belief in electronic samizdat. Like Kurosawa in Rashomon, he doesnt trust that historical truth can ever really be known. Hes skeptical about the ability of young soldiersand all contemporary viewersto appreciate this everyday quagmire and behave responsibly (the same theme as Casualties of War and The Black Dahlia).
What the fuck is behind your eyes?, asks Master Sgt. Sweet (Ty Jones) as he berates an inattentive soldier. Its De Palma setting up a great joke. The punchline, My brain, is the brainless response of a doofus-trooper (typical target of Hollywoods anti-Iraq War junta). He belongs to the torture-porn generation whom many mainstream filmmakers exploit with no moral or social accountability. De Palmas artistry always transcended that fray. Hes been the most morally rigorous maker of extreme cinema; humanism shines through even his most audacious and unsettling fantasies, whether Michael Caines pathetically supine transvestite killer in Dressed to Kill or Carrie Snodgresss shattered bystander in The Fury. But Redacted betrays De Palmas current bewilderment. Its half-mockumentary conceptcatching up to the trend that holds truth hostageis part of to the problem hindering media truth and political comprehension.
From This is Spinal Tap to Borat, mockumentaries have created a class of contemporary moviegoers who, strangely, are both gullible and incredulous. In Hi, Mom!s amazing Be Black Baby sequence, De Palma mocked the possibilities and hypocrisies inherent in then-new technology but he was addressing an audience ready to question the dominant cultures political presumptions. Redacteds audience has been trained in derision and disbelief; they scorn film art, plus, theyve become cynical about government and impervious to the idea of national service. Theyre ready to believe the worst about Iraq and opposed to any political rationale.
This makes Redacteds agit-prop useless for the mockumentary generation. Playwright Tony Kushner recently pinpointed this media crisis: TV has injured our brains. So now we know how to instantly say Ive experienced something, but now Im out of it. I was in it, but now Im out of it. And thats the tragedy of the Iraq soldiers De Palma depicts. Theres nothing behind their eyes.
Instead of imagining himself inside the souls of the boys in desert-khaki as he did in Casualties of War (which sympathetically evoked the humanity of Vietnam War GIs), De Palma keeps a weird distance from Redacteds ground-troop characters and their patriotic mandate. Theyre just a bunch of vicious yabbos and gutless frat-boys, not even the apolitical working-stiffs of David O. Russells Desert Storm comedy Three Kings and unrecognizable from the actual soldiers seen in Sir! No Sir!, Occupation Dreamland or Gunner Palace. De Palmas most vicious pair, B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), resemble the buffoonish non-coms in David Rabes Streamers. Caricaturing the troops as racist miscreants repeats the class snobbery that infects Hollywood anti-Iraq War liberals and it wrecks Redacted utterly.
The films most conscientious soldier, Pvt. McCoy (Rob Devaney), is also the weakest. He cries: I have these snapshots in my brain that are burned in there forever and I dont know what Im gonna do about it. McCoy expresses De Palmas exasperation about regarding the pain of others (pace Susan Sontag). He falls back on movie-brat reflexes: Kubricks long-takes, Peckinpahs symbolism, Godards verbal graphics, Welles dual focal-lengths, Langs paranoia, Altmans irreverence. But these tropes keep the war at a remove. De Palma fails to let movie lore become surreal and take viewers into a clarifying moral dream state like Femme Fatale.
Redacteds worst gambit is its trendiness. De Palma emulates the nihilistic visions of Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Spike Lee, conforming to chic anti-American spite in a closing montage of actual atrocity photos (only wounded women and children). Like the endings of Dogville and Bamboozled, its runty and misinformed. The climactic image of a violated female corpse isnt even De Palmas own but a contrived shock-effect commissioned from art photographer Taryn Simon, designed to spook ones conscience. I stared back at it during a second viewing to defy the cheap way De Palma reduces the tragedy of war to accusing the audience.
Aside from De Palmas nostalgic reclamation of 60s student-radical righteousness, Redacteds real point is that, despite advances in media technology, we dont know what were looking at in Iraqnot even the hippest, angriest distant observers. We just feel aggrieved. But this isnt new insight; its the low point of a great filmmakers career.