The war in Iraq as seen through the eyes of Brian De Palma in "Redacted."
Picture of outrage
The flavor of the day appears to be found in video. If "Cloverfield" is, as famously suggested, "Godzilla" meets "The Blair Witch Project," then Brian De Palma's new "Redacted" is "Casualties of War" meets "Blair Witch" -- although the trend really started with another military film, "84 Charlie Mopic."
Screens: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Feb. 7; 7:30 p.m. Monday; and 1 p.m. Wednesday, at the Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts
Got all that referencing? The found-video auteur assembles his movie out of what is ostensibly raw video fragments shot by amateurs, complete with shaky camera, bad sound and jumbled continuity, like a dream upon which our brains attempt to force a narrative. It's storytelling for the camcorder generation, and it often works, because the sheer clumsiness and amateurishness of the technique tumbles down the fourth wall between story and audience. It seems more real because it seems less slick.
"Cloverfield" is about a giant creature laying waste to New York. "Redacted" is about American soldiers in Iraq causing physical and moral carnage. They're both monster movies, pretty much. Alas, given "Redacted's" clear sense of outrage, "Cloverfield" is more realistic.
De Palma is a filmmaker who revels in the instrumentalities of his craft. All the seams show, because he wants us to see how artful his assembly is. This creates a certain amount of fun in his thrillers, but in "Redacted," the process gets in the way of the storytelling, and the movie is over the top in ways that defeat the very subtle ambiguity of the found-video format.
We have six soldiers here, one of whom is creating a "war diary" in hopes of entering film school, and his camcorder footage makes up most of what we see here. When one of the soldiers is killed by an IED, a couple of his buddies decide to rape and murder an Iraqi family in revenge. Like the IED's victim, the Iraqis are chosen arbitrarily.
The crime, shown primarily in night vision, is horrifying, and it is based on an actual incident now wending its way through the courts. Although there are other horrifying things in the film, including an insurgent beheading carried live on the Web, the narrative thrust focuses on how little authorities care about the incident. They're mostly concerned with sweeping it under the Persian rug.
De Palma, however, telegraphs everything with hamfisted indelicacy, and his use of the found-video format is just way too artificial. I sense his commentary on the eventual DVD release will be insufferably smug. De Palma also wrote the script, and his dialogue is mostly speechifyin' by the subjects, and his narrative incidents are too agitprop.
When the soldiers are forced to riddle a car running a roadblock, for example, the victim, naturally, is an innocent pregnant woman. Much is made of an apparent Iraqi ignorance of hand gestures for traffic control, as if that is the fault of the troops, but by backward logic, it also suggests that Iraqis are incapable of learning things that will keep them from being killed.
The American soldiers are portrayed as either dopes, dupes or near-retarded villains who do everything but twirl their moustaches. De Palma just misses hitting the nail on the head when he portrays the pumped-up machismo that these guys have to delude themselves with to survive in Indian country. Alas, the dialogue is so volley-serve dialectic that it undercuts the reality of the situation. It's not a debate in Ethics 101, guys.
Which brings us to the crux of it. The ongoing Iraq war is reality, giant monsters in the Big Apple are not, no matter how many 9/11 visual references are thrown in. It colors everything. De Palma has made a courageous effort to declare his repugnance for the impossible situation over there, but his showy look-at-me mannerisms undercut his message. "Redaction" redacts itself.