In his ‘director’s statement’, Brian DePalma admits Redacted tells essentially the same story as his Vietnam-set Casualties of War. Obviously, he’s profoundly depressed to have to go through it all again, as another innocent is raped and killed by American soldiers who have essentially invaded her homeland, and yet more would-be decent comrades are traumatised to discover what their platoon buddies are capable of. Based on an all-too-true story, it harks in style all the way back to DePalma’s surveillance-obsessed 1968 state-of-the-nation feature Greetings (which features a Vietnam scene in which a soldier makes a local girl strip on camera) by assembling a collage of images culled from the video diary of eager private Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who hopes his footage will ‘get him into film school’ (in a move which parallels Cloverfield, his camera passes into other hands late in the day), a deliberately arch and classically-scored French documentary called Barrages, newsclips from a fictional Arab TV station, youtube-like postings from a range of websites (Islamic jihadi, soldier’s wife, anti-war ranter), security-cam footage from a US base in Samarra, the recorded decapitation by insurgents of the luckless Salazar (in revenge for the rape, which he filmed but did not participate in) and videotaped debriefings, interviews and psychiatric counselling.
By shooting on DV and working from his own script, DePalma rediscovers the underground approach of his earliest, pre-Hollywood, pre-genre films. If nothing else, Redacted is far more convincing and affecting than the slicker, conventionally-made, stodgy and pompous Casualties of War. However, like a surprising number of films which take this approach, DePalma fails to take into account the fact that recorded material becomes a part of the story – aside from other considerations, all this footage is evidence and in the real world this incident would have become more notorious than the crime which inspired the story simply because it was caught on video. The film doesn’t deal with – or even confirm – what happens when or if Salazar’s footage of the rape and murder (recorded on a helmet minicam his buddies don’t know about) leaks out onto the internet or is used in a court of law; similarly, security cam footage of the prime instigators – wannabe gangster Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and chubby lech BB Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) – discussing their deeds and threatening conscience-stricken NCO Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) ought to have been used against them (the film doesn’t even tell us whether or how severely the villains are punished). The jury is also out on whether it’s stereotyping or undeniably true to depict the two kill-crazy rapists as white trash clods — they ineptly machine-gun a pregnant woman at the checkpoint, stupidly get Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones) killed by playfully shoving him onto a dumped armchair containing an IED as he’s lecturing them on safety precautions (they claim their subsequent ‘raid’ is an attempt to avenge their ‘buddy’ Sweet, who plainly hated them) and incoherently rant about the need to kill or be killed in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile population (Carroll and Sherman are frighteningly good in the roles, though).
Meanwhile, the better-educated barracks intellectual Blix (Kel O’Neil) is archly reading John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, the humane Lawyer (are we expected to believe that’s a real name?) takes the ‘Michael J. Fox’ role, and the African-American Sweet is presented as more thoughtful, conscience-stricken and conscientious if equally stuck in an impossible situation. The eager, apparently innocent, puppy-dog Salazar is actually the film’s scariest character; he enables a terrible crime while intending to betray his comrades by using the footage to advance his own career (that’s a real American, but also – as DePalma could attest – a real director; remember John Travolta using his lover’s dying screams on the soundtrack of a cheap horror film in Blowout), but is killed before he can go through with it; there’s also a near-subliminal jab at the kind of people who want to make movies these days in that Blix makes him admit he’s never heard of Somerset Maugham (though he later reads out Maugham’s ‘Death Speaks’, the ‘appointment in Samarra’ anecdote Boris Karloff made much of in Targets, not realising how perfectly-tailored it is to the film he is making – since he shockingly gets to keep his own appointment).
Given that this tells a story we’ve heard before about other wars in a contemporary, specific context, the movie has to make a political statement: the final montage of ‘actual images from the Iraq war’ is itself ‘redacted’ by blotted-out faces and (more blatantly) the inclusion of staged shots from this fiction (maybe DePalma wants us to take the film’s attitude to documentary to its logical conclusion and question this film itself?). A simplistic reading of the film from US conservative commentators (who have duly given it) is that it’s an exercise in America-bashing, but the range of characters and viewpoints complicates things – the ambitious but thoughtless Angel, the professional soldier Sweet, the agonised but humane McCoy and the hectoringly obnoxious anti-war goth chick who posts on the internet are as emblematically American as the maniacal party dude rape-killers, and you sense that the old ‘1968’ radical in DePalma thinks the real villains of the story are the politicians, senior officers and businessfolks who only register in the margins of the film because they are savvy enough to stay off camera when they’re being evil. It’s sometimes awkward in content and presentation, and hasn’t got time to deal with a spectrum of Iraqi attitudes (we just get cartoon victims and jihadis) in the way it covers American positions, but Redacted is DePalma’s most substantial work in some time, and sums the Greetings/Hi Mom/Casualties of War side of his filmography in the way the underrated Femme Fatale encapsulated his better-known psycho-thriller oeuvre.