The Swan Archives gave our Principal Archivist a little vacation, which he used to travel to New York City to take in the October 10, 2007 premiere of Redacted. He filed the following report later that evening:
October 10, New York, New York
Brian de Palma is pissed off, and he wants you to be pissed off, too. His Redacted (he both wrote and directed), made for a paltry $5 million and shot in high-def video with a cast of unknowns and little-knowns in barely more than two weeks in Jordan, is a cry of rage.
The target of De Palma's ire is not (contrary to what you may have heard from Bill O'Reilly) American soldiers, or the policies which put them in harm's way. Rather, it's the Bush administration's stranglehold over the dissemination of any but the most controlled images of the war, and the corporate news media, which, De Palma suggests, has compliantly cooperated with the Administration's suppression of the most upsetting information and -- especially -- pictures of the war, in favor of presenting a sanitized and mostly-palatable portrait. It's axiomatic that true democracy can thrive only when the populace has access to the truth, and, at its core, Redacted's scream of protest is directed against the death of informed democracy in the United States. By showing us stories and pictures that we haven't seen on TV, De Palma is implicitly claiming that the war lumbers on in large part because its true face, and a true understanding of its impact on our own troops as well as the beleagured people of Iraq, is systematically denied us. If Americans were able to see what the damage wrought in our names really looked like, we'd be mad as hell.
The film, as you've doubtless heard, is a fictionalized account of events surrounding an actual incident in which members of a squad of American soldiers raped and killed a young Iraqi girl, set her body ablaze, and murdered her family. It is utterly brutal in its depiction of these events, and just as uncompromising when chronicling the soulkilling conditions to which our troops are subject.
We are introduced to the soldiers and learn that they are stuck with the tedious and thankless task of manning a checkpoint in Samarra. Most of the men have been in country for multiple tours, and have been teased with repeated broken promises of a return home. They are alternately bored to stupefication and scared out of their wits. Is the next carful of Iraqis a bomb about to explode? Stuffed with insurgents? Or just a family trying to get home? Is the chocolate offered by the laughing local children poisoned? A new pile of rubble appears near the checkpoint one morning...is it "just rubble," or is there an IED hidden in it? The men must differentiate between friendlies and hostiles with little more to go on than guesswork and intuition (in the end, they rely largely on paranoia), and must
fire upon any car whose driver fails to heed the soldiers' (mostly inscrutable) hand signals or the (contradictory) cacaphony of cautionary signage that decorates the maze-like checkpoint - which itself serves as a microcosm of, and metaphor for, the US adventure in Iraq.
The story is told through footage (all created by De Palma and his team) which is intended to appear to have come from myriad sources: security cameras, soldiers' own video blogs, "documentary" footage, embedded reporter coverage, Youtube postings, and Al-Jazeera-like television coverage. Watching the film, we acquire information bit by bit, in a process more akin to surfing the web than to watching a traditional movie, or television. And, as if we were poking around the internet, we find ourselves evaluating the credibility and bias of each source in turn. Nothing can be taken at face value, and nobody tells the whole story. Each source of information has an agenda, and a bias. This has the effect of distancing the viewer from the action taking place: since we quickly learn to mistrust the images, we are encouraged to become hyperconscious of our own critical dissection coming into play. Perversely, and at odds to a degree with its dramatic effectiveness, the film is asking us not to suspend disbelief, and not to get sucked into its story but, instead, to think critically about all that we are shown. If Redacted is, as some have labeled it, "propaganda," it's the first piece of propaganda in history that aims at the mind rather than the heart.
This is exactly why the succession of actual photos of dead, maimed, and grieving Iraqis that closes the film is so crucial: in contrast to the rest of what we've been shown, these photos are offered as the naked truth of the war, unadorned by bias or intermediary. Even after Redacted has put our critical faculties on the alert to the artifice, bias, and sleight of hand that has formed everything we're being shown, these pictures (even as censored to placate the production's insurers) carry such force that we immediately understand why they, and likely thousands of others like them, have been kept from us: no amount of intermediation could dilute their impact. (It wasn't until after leaving the theater that it occurred to me that, in keeping with the film's point, these pictures came, free of context, off the internet, and, in fact, we have no idea what caused these people's injuries, how they died, or why or what they are grieving.)
Redacted starts slowly. Early on, exposition of the tedium of checkpoint-manning is accomplished through the use of a faux French "documentary," called Barrage, which is not-too-subtly critical of what it sees as American arrogance; the "documentary" points out that most Iraqis who can be expected to navigate the checkpoints cannot read the signs which warn them to stop or be fired upon, and tells us that of the 2,000 Iraqis killed at such checkpoints, only 60 were confirmed insurgents. It's clear that the grunts on the ground have had nothing to do with setting up the abysmal systems that will inevitably result in their being obliged to kill innocents, and just as clear that they fully understand that, for example, the Iraqis cannot distinguish between a hand held up to say "stop!" and and one "waving hello." They know that this ambiguity is going to be deadly. They appreciate the futility of trying to communicate in the way they've been instructed to; but, they have their orders, and are denied even the small luxury of feeling remorse when, as would be expected, an innocent gets "waxed".
Rather than damning American soldiers in general, De Palma is careful to particularize the soldiers involved (they are clearly modeled on characters from his own Casualties of War, which, 20 years ago, told a story of a similar incident in the context of the Viet Nam war) and to show us the pressures that lead them to catastrophe. In an apparent misunderstanding, the men fire upon a car carrying a pregnant woman to the hospital, killing her and her unborn child. Of course, there is retaliation by the locals, leading a couple of the soldiers, now angry and vengeful, to commit the atrocity that forms the
centerpiece of the film...itself leading to yet more carnage.
De Palma heightens our awareness of the the monotony of the soldiers' job using both sustained shots of nothing (apparently) going on, and,
in contrast, "sped-up" footage of the guys putting several cars through their checkpoint routine. It's reminiscent of the way he used the same technique to emphasize
the drudgery of packing luggage into the car in The Wedding Party (and also of Kubrick doing the same thing in A Clockwork Orange,
to convey the meaninglessness of Alex's anonymous sex with the two girls he meets in a record shoppe). De Palma also borrows from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon the use of Handel's Sarabande, for the same purpose: to slow things to a crawl. Invocation of that particular piece to stop time worked for Kubrick, and it works here too.
Buried in at least some of these seemingly dull shots is some nice subtext. For example, in the context of the beautifully pretentious
French fake-documentary, we watch Private Salazar, the aspiring filmmaker, as he has nothing better to videotape than a scorpion being overtaken and picked apart by ants. Salazar, as he's taping this, chuckles at the fate of the lumbering scorpion, not realizing that in the metaphor being played out in front of him, the US forces are the scorpion, being overrun and picked apart bit by bit by the numerous and determined insurgents.
(Presumably the hypothetical French documentarians, who supposedly have chosen to focus on this, do get it.) He is amused as one of the scorpion's legs is pulled off by the ants, not knowing that he's later going to play the role of that leg. For the would-be filmmaker to miss the metaphor reinforces nicely Salazar's self-involvement, and his failure to "see" what's going on around him even as his camera bears witness to it. It's as if he is distancing himself from events around him by documenting them, rather than the reverse. (Later, he will be abducted by insurgents who sneak up behind him while, oblivious, he is narcissistically filming himself.) It has a lot to say about how we (Salazar, moviegoers, Americans) are implicated in events merely by witnessing them, and of the leap between witnessing, on one hand, and understanding and responding, on the other. It's a really nice moment in a film filled with nice moments.
It's also a film filled with long takes. Because so much of the story is told through Salazar's videocamera, and security cameras, and youtube-like postings, most scenes are shot single camera in what, in any other film, would be regarded as a tour de force long take. By hewing to the artifice
of simulating "found footage," De Palma is depriving himself of the means to perform
his usual "tricks" -- there's no Steadicam, no multicamera set pieces in slow motion, no quick cutting, no split diopters, no gauzy filters, no cameras floating
through the air on cranes. These flourishes have always been among the joys I take from his work, but (surprise!) it turns out
he doesn't really need them.
For all the noise being made about the film's coarseness, the violence happens mostly offscreen, except for the IED explosion that tears apart one of the American soldiers. The killing of the Iraqi family happens in "the next room" -- we hear the gun being fired, and see, later, the pools of blood where people used to be. As for the insurgent video beheading...it's hard-hitting, but not unnecessarily graphic or exploitative; De Palma shows us the first moment of it, but the victim then dips below the camera's line of sight, and our view is then (mercifully) obscured by his killer's body, and, as in Scarface's shower scene, we experience his death only aurally...which is more than enough.
I've heard others opine that the acting seems amateurish; I disagree. I think part of what may be contributing to this sense is that the actors here have no room to hide in the editing; nobody's face can be cut away from, because the camera just goes as the actors riff. And, it's important to keep in mind that the soldiers, for the most part, are putting on false fronts when they posture for one another while reading porn, or playing poker, or hanging around in their bunks. They're all scared and tired, but full of braggadaccio. Their dialogue, their boasting, and their gung-ho cheerleading is a neverending effort to prop themselves up, to fool themselves and their team into believing that they're tough, that they love killing, that nothing bothers them, and that they're not scared out of their minds. They are completely full of shit, and they know it. So, if they are sometimes unconvincing, whether or not it's intentional, for me, it fit; it worked. In contrast, when Rush the goon, not realizing he's being recorded by the securitycam, threatens to kill one of his squadmates if "what happened in Vegas" doesn't "stay in Vegas," he's entirely authentic and convincing, and scary.
The American soldiers are portrayed, on the whole, sympathetically. We understand exactly why Flake, the "bad apple," goes over the edge. Like his Casualties prototype, Meserve, he was clearly a little unstable even before he got to Iraq. He is overcome by the seeming meaninglessness of his job and the mission, by being called upon to shoot at people when they cross arbitrary lines, by the combination of tedium and constant fear to which he's been exposed for multiple tours of duty and, most of all, by seeing his friend get blown up before his eyes. Rush, the big dumb one, is his "Lenny," a born follower, who latches on to the wrong leader. The film is not "anti-troops" at all, but suggests instead that too much is being asked of these boys. Their youth, and corresponding lack of worldliness, is emphasized by their near-constant allusions to pop culture, and even to De Palma's own prior films. "Here endeth the lesson," says one, quoting Malone from The Untouchables.
De Palma's own point of view seems to be embodied in Lawyer McCoy, who disapproves of
the bad acts being committed by his fellows, but is powerless to stop them and, later, ineffectual in trying to bring them to justice. It's McCoy, the
one with the conscience, rather than Salazar, the one who ostensibly wants to film "the truth" with his videocamera (but whose actual
motivation is mercenary -- he thinks the footage he's shooting will be his ticket to film school), who feels compelled to tell the real story,
and who, in the end, is telling it to people who don't want to hear it. The point seems to be that merely pointing a camera at something
won't get the truth out; that the camera can as easily lie as tell the truth, and that motivations matter. We can have as many reporters in
Iraq as we want, but if their work is intermediated by a Salazar rather than a McCoy, the pictures won't tell us what's really going on.
There are a few moments in the film where it's not immediately clear whose camera is shooting....it's (probably) not the French documentary, it's not Salazar, it's not a security camera.. These moments are only occasional, though, and don't take away unduly from the feeling that everything we're looking at was shot by someone, rather than by an omniscient narrator.
But even the omniscient narrator/director becomes a character in the end: we hear De Palma's offscreen voice (as in Murder a la Mod and Black Dahlia) as
he plays an annoying videographer/relative at McCoy's welcome-home party
. Hoping to hear a blood-soaked tale of American heroism, he exhorts McCoy to "tell us a war story." As soon as he realizes he's getting a confession instead, he shuts off the camera, and we segue directly into the slide show of actual photos of killed,
maimed, and grieving Iraqis, entitled "Collateral Damage." It's a powerful coda, and, positioned just after McCoy's confessional tale being dismissed and minimized, the message is clear: that if we continue to turn away from the truth, the result will be nothing but more carnage.
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