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