Brian De Palma’s outrage over the war in Iraq is palpable in “Redacted,” his fictionalized telling of the real-life rape and murder of a teenage girl by U.S. soldiers.
Certainly this is a story that people need to know about, if they didn’t know it already. His technique, however, tends to be gimmicky and clichéd.
The writer-director strays from his typically stylized aesthetic with this stripped-down pastiche of fake footage: a soldier’s hand-held video diary, a French duo’s sepia-toned documentary, TV news pieces and online video from both a terrorist Web site and the blog of an Army man’s wife.
His point, of course, is that we’re not getting a full picture of the war from the mainstream media. But by showing us absolutely everything from myriad perspectives, it feels like De Palma is beating us over the head. Taking this fragmented approach also slows down the pacing of the narrative; just when one part of the story gets going, we get yanked in another direction.
Ironically, “Redacted” might have been more compelling if De Palma had redacted himself a bit — if he hadn’t been so overt, if he’d given us enough credit to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about these men and the choices they made. (The graphic ending, a series of photos of the bloodied bodies of slain Iraqi civilians, serves as a harrowing exclamation point. Then again, what else would you expect? This isn’t exactly a filmmaker who’s made his name on subtlety.)
That the unknown cast members mostly look stiff and self-conscious, as if they’re performing an off-Broadway play on film, contributes to the sensation that we’re watching something that’s obviously staged and makes it tougher to become truly immersed.
In revisiting much of the same territory as his 1989 Vietnam picture “Casualties of War,” De Palma presents the tried-and-true types of the genre. Within this unit of soldiers at a checkpoint in Samarra, there’s the bookish Blix (Kel O’Neil); the enthusiastic Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who hopes the video he shoots will get him into film school; McCoy (Rob Devaney), the group’s conscience; the overfed country boy Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman); and the wild card, Flake (Patrick Carroll). Ty Jones plays their tough-talking sergeant.
There are some moments of genuine tension — a deadly IED attack, a scene in which a couple of Iraqis in a hurry fail to stop their car at the checkpoint with horrifying consequences. But a lot of “Redacted” consists of teasing banter and waiting for the inevitable midnight raid of a family’s home where a couple of suspected terrorists live.
Far from home and fueled by a dangerous mix alcohol and machismo, the soldiers burst in, shooting whomever they please and taking what they believe is theirs. Some of them try to stop it. Others sit idly by and watch. Regardless, they end up turning on each other and tearing each other apart, and none of them is the same man he was upon arriving in Iraq. It’s not a new insight, but one that De Palma depicts acutely.
In real life, a 14-year-old girl was raped and killed in March 2006 in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad; her parents and sister were also killed in the attack. Four U.S. soldiers already have been sentenced for the crime, a fifth has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
De Palma’s clear passion for the subject, and for getting the truth out, makes you wish he’d attempted a real documentary instead.