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Movie Review: Redacted

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“…a loathsome, crude, amateurish and grotesque assault on our troops in Iraq … a wretched, irresponsible film that richly deserves the public rejection it will, inevitably, receive.” – Micheal Medved

“…De Palma admits he made the film to hurt the Iraq war effort … [De Palma is a] vile man and [Redacted is a] vile film … If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it's on Brian de Palma … During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison.” – Bill O’Reilly

Not many people saw Brian De Palma’s Iraq war film Redacted (the title means to suppress by censorship), certainly not enough for De Palma to bear responsibility for all future deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. Most only know of the film from ranting pundits like Medved and O’Reilly, the first a “film critic” by title only, the second long ago having had his motivations called into question by the maddening documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. And that is a shame. While not perfect, by any means, Redacted is a fascinating and important piece of work. It is important as a somewhat fumbling first foray into promising new territory by one of America’s most complex and compelling filmmakers. It is also important as a statement of outrage. It is unforgivable that in a “democratic” nation people must resort to rummaging around on the Internet to learn what is going on in the world.

Essentially, Redacted is Brian De Palma’s Noam Chomsky-fueled response to how he sees the events in Iraq being censored by the media. Chomsky famously pointed out in books like Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies that the American media acts as a highly efficient propaganda machine – though not necessarily with conscious intent. He points out that Justice Powell’s ideal (“By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment.”) has given way to James Mill’s view (The media’s role is to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government.”). De Palma, longtime radical-minded guy that he is, definitely agrees with Chomsky.

And this frustration with the media informs the film’s structure. Based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, Redacted is a fictionalized recreation of those and surrounding events as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet, an American soldier’s home video, a French documentary, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. This is all edited together to create an impression of what took place, or a very rough approximation really. What we see is far removed from the level of detail and the well-rounded portrayal of the characters involved that would be presented by a talented journalist following the story start-to-finish, which is De Palma’s point.

Through this collage-like approach, employing digital video throughout, De Palma has used Redacted as an opportunity to explore the very implications of the documentary form. The film is like the ultimate faux-documentary turned inside-out to peer at its own inner organs. In an early scene, we are shown a soldier looking down at the ground to watch a scorpion being devoured by ants. This is framed within a French documentary titled Checkpoint and seems to be either making a comment on the sadism of the American soldier(s) or on the way American soldiers are being overcome by Iraqi insurgents or on how the documentary’s director watched Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch too many times – or all three. What’s easy to miss though is De Palma’s interest here in how cleverly – and potentially deceptively – documentary films are constructed. We never see the soldier and the scorpion/ants in the same shot. The shot the soldier appears to be looking at could’ve been lifted straight out of Peckinpah’s western for all we know.

About Todd Ford