Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Redacted (2007, USA/Canada, Brian De Palma)

Easily the most controversial of the current wave of Iraq-focused films, 'Redacted' goes where war films seldom go and breaks that unofficial condition that directors adhere to; by all means criticise the decision makers who send our men and women off to war, but do not criticise the soldiers themselves. De Palma is not interested in the war on a national or global level - you never see politicians or people at home discussing, justifying or opposing war. Instead, his focus is on the ground at the very basic level; primarily showing the action from the perspective of one troop and how they try to maintain whatever passes as peace, order and stability, and also how they (mis)conduct themselves in an alien country.

Perspective, in the sense of situations as seen by numerous different people has been a common feature of De Palma's work. Rashomon, perhaps cinema's finest example of this has been a long term influence, most notably evident in his 1998 thriller 'Snake Eyes'. Here, De Palma uses perspective to show the war from the viewpoint of several individuals or institutions, intriguingly using different media forms. There's the aspiring film student Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who keeps a video diary, the Iraqi domestic television stations, French documentary teams, fundamentalist Islamic websites amongst others, all reporting on the war, and on specific event in particular - the murder of a family by American troops, which included the rape of the fifteen year old daughter. One point that I think De Palma makes is that despite all these media forms being available, the "truth" is still no more apparent or available. Officially, the incident is hushed up as a Shi'ite/Sunni dispute, with the Iraqi/Islamic media outlets suggesting otherwise. The film's tagline is "truth is the first casualty of war"; a comment on the official line on the "success" of the war in Iraq. 'Redacted' shows American (we can't really say Allied, as you see troops of no other nationality) troops hardly in control of the region.

The incident referred to is an obvious reprise of the main focus of De Palma's previous war film 'Casualties of War' (1989). Set in Vietnam, this showed the kidnap and rape of a Vietnamese girl. Here, after arresting the father of a family on spurious suspicions of being an insurgent, a group of soldiers take out their frustrations on the family, as outlined above. The death of their sargeant, the unhealthy close contact of men together deprived of women (their discussions are usually very lurid; pornography is everywhere), their casualness about killing civilians, their overt racism - these all create those conditions and circumstances in which soldiers could commit such atrocities at random. This incident also pulls the rug from under our feet in a different sense. Until now we assumed that Salazar was the troop's moral compass, reporting the truth of the war, seemingly at odds with his more extreme colleagues. However he is involved in the rape and murder, not perpetrating the acts themselves but willing to go along with it. The moral compass now belongs to Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), who tries to convince his colleagues not to commit the atrocities they had planned, and becomes guilt-stricken from his inability to prevent it and the Army's large indifference to his testimony. There is a telling final scene when having returned home, he is asked at his celebration dinner for some stories. His friends and family no doubt expect something glamorous, but he reveals the truth. As he finishes, whooping and applause begins, as if he had said nothing of the sort - a reflection of the fact that people don't want to hear precisely what is going on, that they're willing to self-censor the truth that might be too harrowing to contemplate.

'Redacted' has no conventional narrative; it's essentially fragments of events. Hence, it's a bit incoherent and wayward, shifting from an entry on a video diary to an Iraqi TV broadcast or segment from a French documentary at a moment's notice. Much has been mentioned about the general poor acting, which is a reasonable enough complaint, I suppose. It must be said though that most of the cast are novices, and furthermore, it's not really the point or intention. 'Redacted' seeks to bring together several perspectives of the war, and whilst its critics will claim it's not balanced and has a distinctly pious anti-war outlook, it should be considered of course that the media at large in the US show no balance. The right, notably Fox's Bill O'Reilly, have responded to the film with typical outrage and protest, suggesting that it plays into the hands of our "enemies". De Palma argues that it is a realistic presentation of the troops, rather than the whitewashed portrait the right-wing media offer.

Whilst I admire the film and consider it an important film, it's hard for me to genuinely recommend it. The reason for this is that it is exceptionally upsetting and distressing to watch. The rape and murder if difficult enough to sit through but the means in which a group of fundamentalist Muslims exact revenge for this (beheading Salazar live in the internet) is equally grim. It's a gruelling ordeal and you'd leave the cinema feeling far far worse than when you entered. Let alone the political controversy, the film's content would be enough to make it a difficult film to market, though it's only likely to really reach the already converted. A shame, because it's a highly intriguing, if highly flawed film. 3.5/5

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