Casualty of War Movies

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:50

    Was Brian De Palma joking when he said he made Redacted to stop the war in Iraq? For the past 30 years he hasn’t made a movie that got people to simply go to the movies.

    The last time De Palma’s 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 Palma’s 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 II—recalling his 1989 drama about a similar event in the Vietnam War. It’s the same bleak condemnation seen  in Paul Haggis’s 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 barbarism—or maybe heroism—De Palma uses the war for an uninviting formalist exercise. Of course, Redacted’s more sophisticated than Haggis’ sappy pandering (it’s not hawkish, it’s mawkish), but in the end, it’s just as sanctimonious.

    Renaming Mahmudiya as “Samarra” tips off De Palma’s fatuous methods. Bookish Pvt. Blix (Kel O’Neil) reads John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra while his barracks-mates read Hustler. De Palma integrates O’Hara’s use of Somerset Maugham’s epigram “Death Speaks” for a high-toned allusion to fate and mortality. But Maugham’s irony doesn’t apply to a war drama where fate and mortality are a given. De Palma hasn’t thought through what to say about war. But then he instinctively complicates the conceit by stockpiling diverse technological perspectives: Sequences sample either a soldier’s 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 can’t get enough slant on the war, but it’s essentially a technocrat’s quandary. Moviegoers familiar with self-reflexive strategies by Iranian filmmakers Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami will be ahead of the game and casual filmgoers won’t care—a 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 knowledge—something 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 culture’s relation to contemporary politics. Redacted’s bald, humorless title feels desperate, like De Palma’s defection to digital-video fashion—desperate to keep up.

    For a cinema aesthete, that’s 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 there’s no excitement—no visual thrall—in Redacted’s testing-out new ways of seeing. De Palma’s like a kid discovering the Internet, presuming that it liberates all information, then grousing that the technology doesn’t 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 ain’t De Palma’s style. He needs fiction—the imagining of danger, humor, lust and dread—to 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 compliments—a Best Director prize from the wonky Venice Film Festival jury and his first-ever selected invitation from the New York Film Festival. At Redacted’s Lincoln Center premiere, De Palma reportedly boasted, “It’s 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, ‘That’s probably true.’”

    Obviously, Redacted has amassed more gravitas than De Palma’s masterpieces only because it kowtows to culture-brokers’ political biases. This is more than a personal insult; it’s another indication of how off-kilter film culture has become since 9/11. The media’s rush to validate a weak De Palma film continues last year’s insanity that overpraised the TV-style docudrama United 93, misconstrued Oliver Stone’s 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 War’s perplexity. But Redacted isn’t resistance; it’s head-in-the-sand nostalgia. De Palma reaches back to his earliest features—the 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 Palma’s sophomoric impudence made it easy to laugh off anxiety about the Vietnam war and ’60s political assassinations yet they contained genuine malaise—and 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 Hollywood’s irresponsible and self-righteous mob, but their “rebellion” is different from an artist’s 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. It’s as if De Palma was indeed what his blind detractors have always claimed: a copycat.

    De Palma’s wit was ahead of the curve in Greetings and especially the culture and media-spoof Hi, Mom!; now he’s behind the eight ball. Redacted opens itself to the obnoxious rabble-rousing of right-wing fanatics like Bill O’Reilly because it carelessly blames the war on the young men who fight it. As De Palma’s 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 Palma’s ambivalence about the video age (its makers and consumers) contradicts his seeming belief in electronic samizdat. Like Kurosawa in Rashomon, he doesn’t trust that historical truth can ever really be known. He’s skeptical about the ability of young soldiers—and all contemporary viewers—to 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. It’s De Palma setting up a great joke. The punchline, “My brain,” is the brainless response of a doofus-trooper (typical target of Hollywood’s anti-Iraq War junta). He belongs to the torture-porn generation whom many mainstream filmmakers exploit with no moral or social accountability. De Palma’s artistry always transcended that fray. He’s been the most morally rigorous maker of extreme cinema; humanism shines through even his most audacious and unsettling fantasies, whether Michael Caine’s pathetically supine transvestite killer in Dressed to Kill or Carrie Snodgress’s shattered bystander in The Fury. But Redacted betrays De Palma’s current bewilderment. Its half-mockumentary concept—catching up to the trend that holds truth hostage—is 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 culture’s political presumptions. Redacted’s audience has been trained in derision and disbelief; they scorn film art, plus, they’ve become cynical about government and impervious to the idea of national service. They’re ready to believe the worst about Iraq and opposed to any political rationale.

    This makes Redacted’s 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 ‘I’ve experienced something, but now I’m out of it. I was in it, but now I’m out of it.’” And that’s the tragedy of the Iraq soldiers De Palma depicts. There’s 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 Redacted’s ground-troop characters and their patriotic mandate. They’re just a bunch of vicious yabbos and gutless frat-boys, not even the apolitical working-stiffs of David O. Russell’s Desert Storm comedy Three Kings and unrecognizable from the actual soldiers seen in Sir! No Sir!, Occupation Dreamland or Gunner Palace. De Palma’s most vicious pair, B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), resemble the buffoonish non-coms in David Rabe’s Streamers. Caricaturing the troops as racist miscreants repeats the class snobbery that infects Hollywood anti-Iraq War liberals and it wrecks Redacted utterly.

    The film’s 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 don’t know what I’m gonna do about it.” McCoy expresses De Palma’s exasperation about regarding the pain of others (pace Susan Sontag). He falls back on movie-brat reflexes: Kubrick’s long-takes, Peckinpah’s symbolism, Godard’s verbal graphics, Welles’ dual focal-lengths, Lang’s paranoia, Altman’s 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. 

    Redacted’s 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, it’s runty and misinformed. The climactic image of a violated female corpse isn’t even De Palma’s own but a contrived shock-effect commissioned from art photographer Taryn Simon, designed to spook one’s 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 Palma’s nostalgic reclamation of ’60s student-radical righteousness, Redacted’s real point is that, despite advances in media technology, we don’t know what we’re looking at in Iraq—not even the hippest, angriest distant observers. We just feel aggrieved. But this isn’t new insight; it’s the low point of a great filmmaker’s career.