Redacted (2007): De Palma’s Angry Manifesto

Displaying overtly anti-Iraq War sentiments, Brian De Palma’s angry manifesto “Redacted” is an artistic disappointment, despite his honorable intent, anti-military crusade, and experimental nature.

Structurally messy, this HD-shot film falls in between the cracks, being neither documentary nor fictional (De Palma has described it as a “fictionalized docu”), neither intellectually nor emotionally compelling. Though set in Iraq and unfolding as a video diary, with specific dates and times placed on each entry, “Redacted” has nothing new to say about the Iraq War (or any war for that matter), that has not been said better before, including De Palma himself.

Revolving around the tragic episode of the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl by US soldiers and the conspiracy to cover up the event, the film revisits a similar episode in De Palma’s “Casualties of War” (1989), a better picture set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Though inspired by the March 2006 rape and killings by U.S. troops in Mahmoudiya (south Baghdad region), “Redacted” will inevitably suffer in comparison to the new, growing cycle of horrific and authentic documentaries about Iraq.

“Redcated” raises some intriguing questions, the most important of which may be how to portray a chaotic, messy, senseless war in a way that will make it palatable, tangible, and relatable to audiences. As it is, I doubt that the film, which is released by the entrepreneurial Magnolia, will be seen by many viewers. And because it comes across as agit-prop, it might serve as ammunition for the Right Wing, if they ever pay attention to this low-budget picture.

De Palma received the prestigious Best Director Award from the Venice Film Festival by a jury that was composed of directors; Zhang Yimou was president. Having served on 43 festivals juries (two of which in Venice Fest), I know that jury deliberations are often conducted along ideological and political rather than purely artistic yardsticks, if there is such a thing. It could be that De Palma impressed the jury members with a bold piece of cinema that seemingly deviates from most of his work, the stylized thrillers (from “Sisters” to last year’s “The Black Dahlia”), the big Hollywood movies (“The Untouchable,” “Mission Impossible”), and the Hitchcock-inspired features (“Obsession,” Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double”), with which he is most closely associated.

I say seemingly, because De Palma, as noted, directed one of the better Vietnam War films (“Casualties of War”) and he began his career almost forty years ago with two charming counter-cultural, quintessentially New York films, “Greetings” (1968) and “Hi, Mom” (1970), which, among other things displayed the potential of Robert De Niro as a great actor. In 1981, De Palma made the political thriller, “Blow Out,” which was inspired by Antonioni’s masterpiece, “Blow-Up,” but also stands on its own as a uniquely American paranoia-conspiracy picture

The first ten minutes are most promising, with the opening sequence illustrating the film’s title by placing blacked-out words on documents as they pass through the censors’ strict scrutiny; same image appears later.

This, and other acts, suggest that “Redacted” will be concerned with how the mass media, mostly U.S. and Western European, but also Arabic, deal, distort, and repackage the war with their formulaic “human interest” stories,” more in the vein of infotainment (or strict entertainment) than factual reportage.

Indeed, at least one fourth of the text consists of a sequence called “Barrage,” a French chronicle about the routine work at a checkpoint that calls for rough inquiring (some physical abuse), forcing civilians to strip, and other methods. Narrated in a solemn way by a female French journalist, it’s a fake report, though it’s not clear whether De Palma is using it as a way to criticize and perhaps even mock such reportage. Like most of the other footage, the report is disrupted, and we get bits and pieces of it interspersed throughout the film, a device that may call too much attention to its mechanics rather than function.

What gives the excessively fractured and incoherent film some unity is the group of half a dozen grunts, who either speak to the camera, or interview each other, or are being interviewed by the authorities, when the investigation of the rape-murder case begins.

Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a Latino soldier, emerges as one of the central figures in Alfa Company, a grunt who records events on his video camera for a documentary to be called, “Tell Me No Lies.” Here, De Palma is at his most cynical, suggesting that Salazar is more interested in using the docu for his admission into a top film school than in a chronicle of the horrible war atrocities.

Through Salazar, we meet his peers at Camp Carolina, Samarra, which, unfortunately are all types, familiar from the long tradition of Hollywood combat films, dating back to John Wayne’s WWII films.

Sporting glasses, Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill) is a yuppie intellectual soldier, who in his spare time reads John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra.” At point, is asked to read novelist W. Somerset Maugham’s introduction to the book.

Then there is Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), arguably the most sympathetic soldier, who claims he was sent “on a watch,” during the rape and thus did not witness directly the horrific violation. In a later scene, the conscientious soldier communicates via video with his macho father, a proud, old American who’s worried that his son might spill the beans to no effect. Of all the actors, Devaney is the only one who gives a convincing performance, particularly in the end, when he breaks down in tears while his buddies want to hear about his war adventures (“Tell us a good war story”).

The other three or four are even more narrowly defined, including the “leader,” Master Sgt. James Sweet (Ty Jones), a tough soldier, doing hiss third tour of duty, and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), the “villains of the piece,” who commit violence and abuse without feeling remorse or repentance.

The material for “Redacted” is constructed from footage that De Palm found on the Internet, while conducting research. Hence, in addition to Salazar’s video diary, there are glimpses into Arab TV channels, scenes of military investigation, various testimonials, and Islamic fundamentalist and American Websites, in one of which, a distressed wife, representing all other women, begs for the war to stop and for her husband to come home.

De Palma claims that his film is largely based on videos and journal entries posted on blogs and Websites, such as YouTube. To protect anonymity, unable to use this material, he reconstructed the vignettes-stories with a cast of largely unknown actors, mostly from the stage, shooting on digital video in Jordan’s Amman, standing in for Iraq.

With all due respect for the bold and even original approach, “Redacted” is after all a De Palma film, and thus we get some of his work’s recurrent motifs and references and allusions to other filmmakers, such as Kubrick, who made the Vietnam War film “Full Metal Jacket.” In music, too, De Palma relies on the Baroque score taken from Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece “Barry Lyndon,” and uses of Verdi’s bel canto opera “Tosca” for the photo montages.

De Palma has always been a reflexive and self-reflexive director, and so in “Redacted,” he deliberately calls attention to the very process of filmmaking, which creates further distance between the viewers and the horrific incidents illustrated on screen.

That said, “Redacted” is a movie of some powerfully raw moments, if not whole scenes. It’s hard to shake the strong image early on, when a car driven by Iraqis doesn’t stop at the checkpoint, and Flake and Rush open fire, only to realize that one of the passengers is a pregnant woman. Rushed to the hospital, the woman, covered in blood, dies, and the soldiers, seemingly unaffected and unrepentant, go on to the next chore. Rush says, “You can’t afford remorse. You get remorse, you get weak. You get weak, you die.” Their rationalization: “We are here to follow orders, not to ask questions, that’s all.”

“Redcated” is at its most dramatically convincing and visually forceful in the last reel, which depicts a night raid on a civilians’ home, where Flake and Rush are secretly videotaped raping a young girl and then shooting in cold blood the girl and her entire family, which is in adjacent room. This incident is based on the March 2006 murder and rape of the 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, in Mahmudiya. Masterly shot by De Palma in near dark (with green light), the act captures the victims’ hysteria, as well as our voyeuristic, defenseless instincts, watching something we don not want to watch, and feeling defenseless by doing nothing to stop it.

The best is left for the end, in a scene set in pub, with McCoy, his girlfriend, and chums celebrating his safe return home. This is De Palma’s cynical version of “hail the conquering hero,” with McCoy, haunted and traumatized by what he had seen and experienced, forced to forget and pretend that “All’s Well on the Western Front.”

“Redacted” ends with a three-minute montage, labeled “Collateral Damage,” which presents color photos of real-life victims of the Iraq War, a series of images of one dead civilian after another, lying in a pool of blood. These images are bound to haunt and linger in our personal and collective memories for a long time to come.

Ultimately, though, the most disappointing elements about “Redacted” are how simplistic the anti-war arguments are, how primitive the emotions evoked vis–vis a complex political situation, how shallow the dialogue is, how stereotypical the soldiers are.


Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz)

Lawyer McCoy (Tob Devaney)

Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill)

B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman)

Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll)

Master Sgt. James Sweet (Ty Jones)


A Magnolia Pictures release of an HDNet Films presentation of a The Film Farm production. Produced by Jennifer Weiss, Simone Urdl, Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente.

Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban.

Directed, written by Brian De Palma.

Camera: Jonathon Cliff.

Editor: Bill Pankow.

Production designer: Phillip Barker.

Art director: Michael Diner.

Costume designer: Jamla Aladdin.

Sound: John Thomson. Sound designer: Paul Fairfield.

Special effects: David Harris.

Special makeup effects: Adrien Morot.

MPAA Rating: R

Running time: 90 Minutes.


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