If there’s any justice, the first public screening of Brian De Palma’s Redacted (October 10) at the New York Film Festival will be incendiary. I hope that it makes people livid, that it’s furiously debated. I’m still recovering from it, and I averted my eyes for the last minute, when De Palma shows actual footage of “collateral damage” — bloody corpses of Iraqi civilians, including children and babies. What preceded that epilogue was devastating enough: a dramatization of the events before, during, and after the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl — along with the killing of her family — by American soldiers.
The film is a sequel of sorts to De Palma’s Casualties of War, which also centered on a rape and murder by American soldiers, in that case of a Vietnamese teenager. Released during the Reagan–Bush I era nearly two decades after the events chronicled in Daniel Lang’s New Yorker piece, when it was hard to find a studio movie without a happy ending, the film was a box-office disaster. Americans had helicoptered out of Saigon fourteen years earlier. Who needed another guilt trip? There was no urgency.
There is now.
Stylistically, Casualties and Redacted bear no resemblance to each other. De Palma dispenses with the smooth, multilayered tracking shots that have become his signature, along with those fancy set pieces I’ve come to think of as audacious spatial-temporal equations — the thriller’s higher math. He has no time for that here. The new film is an assemblage of fake documentary footage, much of it from soldiers’ camcorders. (This resembles video shot by the reservists themselves in the influential documentary The War Tapes.) For a more “objective” perspective, De Palma creates a faux French documentary about the life of American soldiers at a security checkpoint in Samarrah.
I’ll write about Redacted at greater length in November, when it opens commercially. But it’s important to deal now — before the noise machine gears up — with the question of De Palma’s alleged misogyny and anti-Americanism.
De Palma has always been attracted to material in which women are the victims of male sexual rage. But apart from Body Double, a middle finger to feminists who attacked him for Dressed to Kill (and a big mistake), his films grapple with the issue in ways that turn the criticism on its head. Simply put: Who better to explore sexual violence onscreen than someone who understands the Male Gaze — and its cinematic legacy — so intimately? Anyone who sees the suffering faces of the victims in Casualties and Redacted — or the haunted eyes of Mia Kirschner, already a ghost, in the film-within-a-film in The Black Dahlia — knows that De Palma not only despairs over what he’s showing us but implicates his own medium, his own Male Gaze.
Although bigotry and sexism are rampant in Redacted, there is only one sociopath in the group — he’s fat and his name is Rush, although I have no inside knowledge that it’s in honor of Mr. Limbaugh, who dismissed the tortures of Abu Ghraib as frat-boy antics. Another soldier has been driven around the bend by seeing a superior blown to pieces before his eyes. Another is a would-be filmmaker, who hopes the resulting video assemblage will be his ticket to USC film school, and whose amoral stance — he’s just there to document the crime — comes back to bite off his head. The fourth man wants no part in the assault, but for a variety of reasons finally runs from the scene, unable to intervene. He blows the whistle too late to save the girl and her family — and too late, in the larger scheme, to stop the retaliation against American soldiers.
Is it anti-American (or anti-troops) to suggest that soldiers on their third tours of duty in a place where they have little knowledge of the language or culture, where they are rarely engaged by the enemy directly, where they can’t begin to tell who is on their side and who wants to blow them up, where it’s overpoweringly hot and the stench of death is everywhere, where they don’t even understand the aims of their occupation, stand a good chance of losing both their moral compass and their minds? As in Casualties, De Palma suggests that the soldiers’ persistent fear and grief over their fallen comrades might give some of them (the least stable) a monstrous sense of entitlement. This is not, however, an unsympathetic portrait. Watching a car approach a checkpoint from the Americans’ point of view helps you understand the way their fight-or-flight instincts are relentlessly engaged. The soldiers who don’t come home in body bags or with missing limbs will be damaged in other ways.
Some have asked: Why document the atrocities of Americans — a few “bad apples”? Why not show the atrocities of the insurgents? Of Saddam Hussein? The thing is, I’ve seen no lack of that documentation, in both arty reenactments like United 93 and red-meat action flicks like The Kingdom — which is only subversive because it’s set in a supposedly friendly country, Saudi Arabia. (As Harry Shearer would say on Le Show, “Our friends, ladies and gentlemen!”) How many films depict collateral damage? How many show the horrible consequences of righteous vengeance? (That’s what this rape and murder is — vengeance for being emasculated. Just as 9/11 was vengeance for the emasculating crime of putting infidel troops on Saudi Arabian soil.)
How should we feel about the images of death that close Redacted? On one level, they don’t belong in an otherwise fictionalized depiction. On another, if we saw that footage (and more like it) on our nightly news programs, we might, as a nation, be stirred from our moral lethargy. I can’t blame the incensed De Palma for using every weapon at his disposal to break through. He makes me proud to be an American.
In his Atlantic blog, right-winger Ross Douthat makes fun of my review of Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, which also touches on the moral devastation of Americans in Iraq. I said in my column that although it’s a clunky piece of storytelling and a third-rate mystery, it’s also a powerful and important film. Douthat sees this as representative of a liberal tying himself up in knots to praise a movie he dislikes but agrees with politically. If he thinks those are knots, he should read me on Michael Moore!
This is one of the most complicated parts of film criticism — of any criticism. When I was at the Village Voice in the eighties, I was occasionally maligned in-house for not embracing movies with the correct political line just because they were, um, terrible. That still happens: As much as I agreed with the critique of racism in Haggis’s Crash, I thought — and wrote — that the film was laughably contrived. Let cowboys wear pantyhose under their chaps, but spare me the quasi-religious couplings of Brokeback Mountain. The Situation made many of the same (important) points about the chaos in Iraq as the stupendous documentary No End in Sight, but so maladroitly (from a dramatic standpoint) that it was difficult to champion.
That said, anyone who thinks that politics shouldn’t be a factor in considering the merits of a film — especially now, in the midst of this catastrophic occupation — is being perverse. There were many reasons to praise In the Valley of Elah, and one of them is that it speaks eloquently and urgently to horrors in Iraq and the horrors, on the home front, to come.