Many films have already addressed our catastrophic war in Iraq — Gunner Palace, Iraq in Fragments, War Made Easy, In the Valley of Elah, and No End in Sight immediately come to mind — but Brian De Palma’s feature-length fictionalized polemic, Redacted, expresses its outrage with a ferocity that takes mainstream protest of the war into new territory.
Its turf isn’t policy or political strategy or military tactics but the remarkably hermetic world of American ground troops in Iraq, the people with the dirtiest jobs in our current Gilded Age. De Palma’s shocker (he directed his own screenplay) is framed as a grunt-level melodrama of rape, murder, dishonesty, and other soldierly pursuits, in particular the savaging of a teenage Iraqi girl and her family by a squad of Marines looking to score some “haji pussy” in the city of Samarra in 2006.
In their voluminous uniforms augmented by body armor and other bulky gear, patrol duty is hell for the guys standing all day in the broiling heat at a checkpoint on a small bridge. Every approaching car could carry an IED, any passing person could be a suicide bomber. The kids might look innocent playing soccer in a nearby dusty field, but at night they’re out there planting booby traps, warns the sergeant. Don’t accept anything they give you, even a fig.
We hurriedly get to know the squad, just like in any war movie: sweet-natured Angel Salazar (played by Izzy Diaz), who videos everything; B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a mean-tempered fat boy; Blix the bookworm (Kel O’Neil); talkative Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney); Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), a rookie with a violent stateside history; and Master Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones), forever trying to smarten up his men. To the tune of Handel’s Sarabande (the same mournful classical music Stanley Kubrick used in Barry Lyndon, another grim soldier’s tale), the Marines sweat in the sun, pausing occasionally to do terrible things like shooting and killing a pregnant woman whose car, rushing to the hospital to deliver her baby, refuses to stop for the checkpoint. Hardboiled cruelty and suffering are the order of the day. Racism, too.
Much of the film’s action is a restaging of actual events, particularly the rape and murder by US troops of a 14-year-old girl whose body was set on fire before she and her family were slaughtered. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the evidence of that crime was recorded and saved in blogs, journal entries, the soldiers’ war videos, and postings on YouTube. As the director notes in the press materials, “It was all there, and all in video.” The title refers to editing, or redacting, the documents in adapting them to a narrative screenplay for actors. For De Palma, “redacting” also means the US military censorship of “sensitive information” such as the real-life incident in Samarra. Asserts the filmmaker: “The true story of our Iraq War has been redacted from the Main Stream Corporate Media.”
Ugly as it is, the story exerts a strange power that goes beyond simple revulsion. It’s presented as a mock-documentary pastiche of found videos — including broadcast news footage from Iraqi and French TV — yet it’s clearly been written and performed. The grunts are too articulate, for one thing. Real-life war videos are considerably more brutish and nonchalant. Nevertheless, De Palma and his cast manage to dramatize the despair with minimal fat and one or two actorly smart bombs — Private Flake’s Teamsters monologue about his brother stands out, as does Lawyer McCoy’s “war stories” scene with his bride and friends back home. Kudos to actors Carroll and Devaney.
“Over there” and “back home” didn’t match up very neatly for the soldiers in De Palma’s Casualties of War, either. Rape, murder, cover-up, a warrior’s mind-set, and the violent soul of America played major parts in that 1989 film as well, set in Vietnam. De Palma evidently repeated the exercise as his protest against yet another bad war. Redacted might err on the histrionic side a little, might arrive at its tone of condemnation too easily, and actually may be accused of candy-coating the true situation. No doubt that’s why the filmmaker tacked on a coda titled “Collateral Damage” — a series of images of actual Iraq atrocities, including a shot of the corpse of the real 14-year-old victim. Lest we forget.
Things are bad all over this week at the movies. But in Darfur Now, writer-director Theodore Braun’s informative documentary recap of the humanitarian nightmare in Sudan’s Darfur region, there’s a small glimmer of hope amid the carnage.
Audiences who may not be fully up to speed on the Darfur situation get a quick, depressing briefing — some 200,000 dead out of a regional population of six million, largely the result of raids by the Janjaweed militia (“devils on horseback” in Arabic) against “African” (meaning black) residents of Darfur, seemingly condoned by the government of General Omar Bashir, Sudan’s president. Bashir and his apologists cast the conflict as a struggle of “nomads versus farmers over lack of resources,” but most of the world recognizes it as genocide.
The filmmakers hope to benefit from the intervention of such celebrities as Don Cheadle and George Clooney on behalf of Darfur’s African villagers, but more to the point are the film’s glimpses into the lives of Darfur rebels like Hejewa Adam, a woman who left her home to hide in the hills with anti-government forces, as well as UN relief workers like Pablo Recalde, whose idea of victory is to deliver a relief food shipment without it being stolen by the Janjaweed. On the global scene, we also tag along with Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor from the International Criminal Court in the Hague, who hopes to ultimately achieve the same brand of social justice in Darfur as in his home country, Argentina, which suffered its own dirty war. Who knows, maybe some day Ocampo will be able to get the architects of the Iraq war in the dock. Until then, Darfur Now and Redacted will have to act as moral entertainments, conscientious objections we buy tickets to see.