The controversy that surrounded the theatrical release of Redacted generated much heat and precious little light. Based on a March, 2006, incident in which five U.S. soldiers raped an Iraqi girl and murdered members of her family, the film attracted far more interest in political circles than it did at the multiplex, where it seemingly played for roughly 20 minutes. Conservative pundits excoriated writer-director Brian De Palma for his anti-Iraq War screed, with Bill O'Reilly going so far as to call De Palma's low-budget movie treasonous.
Now that the smoke has cleared, the brouhaha over Redacted clearly seems overblown. The film is not a work of treason, but agitprop. De Palma's morality tale casts only two soldiers as true villains -- the crime depicted onscreen is actually less horrific than the real-life occurrence -- and, in many ways, it is a rewrite of the filmmaker's own Casualties of War in 1989. Still, falling short of treason doesn't exactly mean Redacted is entirely successful, either.
It is an interesting picture, to be sure, boasting an experimental vibe reminiscent of De Palma's countercultural works from the late 1960s and early '70s. Redacted is set up as a documentary, a pastiche of excerpts from faux home movies, TV news segments, Internet video blogs, YouTube clips and surveillance footage. The ostensible documentarian here -- at least for most of our filmic journey -- is Pfc. Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who hopes that videotaping his experiences in Iraq will lead to a place in film school. He and his camcorder introduce us to his fellow troops in Samara, an assortment of archetypes who include two unsavory types, Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman).
The psychological climate at the camp is steeped in paranoia and fear. At a U.S.-manned security checkpoint, a pregnant Iraqi woman is shot after the driver, her brother, mistakenly believes that soldiers are waving him through. As for the American troops, they find it virtually impossible to tell which Iraqis are friendly and which unassuming pedestrians are working with insurgents. A war-hardened master sergeant (Ty Jones), surveying a group of kids kicking around a soccer ball, cautions his comrades in arms that "these smiling, soccer-playing shit-birds ain't nothing but their (insurgents') eyes and ears." Soon enough, that same sergeant is killed by a roadside explosive.
The men of the company are enraged and grieving. Flake and B.B., however, use the tragedy as an excuse to enact their own brand of vengeance by raping a 15-year-old Iraqi girl who passes through the security checkpoint each day. The other soldiers are disgusted and try to stop the pair, especially two GIs named Blix (Kel O'Neill) and McCoy (Rob Devaney), but to no avail. Flake and B.B. rape the girl and fatally shoot her mother, grandfather and little sister.
This is grim, brutal stuff, but too often the movie's weightiness is undermined by the director's inconsistency. De Palma is most successful in capturing the pervasive fear in daily life in Iraq. In one scene, viewers are thrust into the point of view of a motorist winding past a maze of soldiers manning the security checkpoint. De Palma is a visually arresting filmmaker, if nothing else, and Redacted has some truly riveting moments.
But De Palma is not a particularly gifted writer. Despite his ambitions, the film is hamstrung by on-the-nose dialogue, thin characterization and a generally cumbersome narrative. He overreaches for meaning, an instinct ill-served by a largely green cast. Early on, McCoy tells Salazar that "the first casualty [in this war] is gonna be the truth" -- and that level of didacticism pretty much sets the tone for what follows. Redacted is irrefutably opposed to the Iraq War, but even that stance is compromised by De Palma's aversion to subtlety. If he means to demonstrate how the inhumanity of wartime spurs inhumane behavior, he stacks the deck by making Flake and B.B. psychopaths from the get-go.
Only once does De Palma's in-your-face approach really have a resounding impact: the film's controversial ending, a montage of grisly real-life images of Iraqi carnage. In a strange case of reality proving ironic, the photographs are made even more chilling because the Pentagon directed the filmmakers to blacken out the eyes of the casualties onscreen.
In the end, the most resonant idea presented in Redacted involves voyeurism, a theme that De Palma has autopsied through most of his moviemaking career. Salazar and McCoy do not take part in the crime -- indeed, they are repulsed by what occurs and try, albeit halfheartedly, to prevent it -- but they are tormented by their culpability in having witnessed the atrocity. "Just because you're watching it doesn't mean you're not part of it," one soldier tells Salazar, who tagged along with Flake and B.B. in the attack. De Palma appears to suggest that guilt and innocence are particularly malleable in a media-saturated culture where no secret goes unrecorded and all manner of horrific imagery is only a mouse click away.
The antiwar posturing is what attracted attention to Redacted, but its questions about voyeurism are what ultimately intrigues.
The high-def picture quality is outstanding. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1, Redacted boasts sharp lines and clean details that fairly leap out of the television screen.
Both the 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks are excellent. The former makes sparing but effective use of sound separation. Subtitles are available in Spanish.
In the eight-minute, 53-second Higher Definition: Redacted Episode, HDNet show host Robert Wilonsky talks with De Palma about the movie. The director, whose father was an emergency-room physician, notes that he was inspired to use the unfiltered technology of high-definition after seeing the unforgettable HBO documentary, Baghdad ER.
Refugee Interviews are searing accounts from Iraqis who have fled to Jordan, including the young woman who plays Redacted's rape victim. The tales are heartbreaking, outrageous and often infuriating. The segment runs one hour and one minute.
The self-explanatory Behind the Scenes is five minutes of not-so-insightful footage. The DVD also includes a photo gallery.
Too ham-handed to really achieve its antiwar mission but too bold and ambitious to dismiss, Redacted is ultimately a fascinating failure. Still, this is one of Brian De Palma's meatier films in recent years, and one that is certain to elicit strong emotions from viewers.