Certain films tend to polarize an audience. One category sure to have this affect is the movies ‘inspired by true events’. The film makers take something that actually happened and apply a good amount of dramatic license. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach to cinema unless, of course, the producers are marketing the film as absolutely true. Even in the best cases films that are based on actual events should be taken with a sizable grain of salt. The latest work from the creative mind of Brian De Palma falls into this category. The film, ‘Redacted’ looks at the atrocities of war, in particular the current conflict in Iraq. This film has resulted in more than its share of controversy that has enveloped the owner of the distributor billionaire Mark Cuban. It is not like De Palma is a stranger to controversy. In many ways this film is an updated version of his previous movie ‘Casualties of War’ set in Viet Nam. War but its very nature is terrible, filled with unthinkable acts of brutality and inhumanity. The fundamental point that De Palma is making in both films is simple; place even the best men in combat and some will turn to cruelty. This is also a film that will without a doubt polarize the audience. Most will either love it or hate it; few will fall in the middle ground.
In a film like this the audience may have to separate the debate of its veracity from the cinematic style. The film was shot on several different pieces of modern technology. Most was done on HD digital video but there are scenes originating from internet uploads, camera phones and even old fashion film. There are times that while looking at this movie the audience will forget and almost believe it is real. Now, more than any time in history, people are documenting every aspect of their lives. Just look at the evening news or any internet blog and you will find images and clips of events that occurred only minutes before. De Palma takes this trend and employs it to incredible advantage in this film. Unlike his other films this one was able to come in on a small budget. It takes a fair amount of courage for a big film director to take on a project like this but obviously De Palma was passionate about the subject matter. Some may raise objections to his stated source of the factual material the film is based on. De Palma has commented that the real soldier’s video dairy and other internet sources were the basis for the story. Some may say that this is an unreliable foundation but in this technological world we live in more and more news is being broken on the net. De Palma is creating a new genre in some ways, the fictional documentary. There are some aspects of this technique that are as novel as when Truman Capote ‘invented’ the literary form known as the ‘non-fiction novel’. As with any work of this sort it is up to the audience to decide what is factual and what is fiction.
The film did not do well during its theatrical release. It was universally panned but the more right wing inclined press and media. Some critics have gone so far as to call De Palma and Cuban traitors to the country. With the tide of public opinion moving away from accepting the war and the administration this film may find a renewed life on DVD. HDNet which is owned by Cuban and which bankrolled the film made sure that no actual names were used in the film and the details of the real events could not be used. This was obviously the word handed down by the lawyers. De Palma added to the debate over the film but not including the fact that the soldiers involved in the real incident stood trial and was sentenced to exceptionally long prison sentences. This colored the piece by highlighting the criminal act without the repercussions. At the end of the film faces of real soldiers and victims of violence in Iraq were used. This was too much for Cuban who demanded that the faces be obscured. It is ironic that the final cut of the movie itself was redacted.
Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) wants little more out of life than to be a film maker. Back in the States he has received only rejection from film schools so he decides to make good use of his time in the army serving in Iraq. He takes his video camera with him every where he goes and is certain that will be his ticket into school. Also in the war zone is a French film crew making a documentary called ‘Barrage’ or checkpoint. De Palma cuts between the two points of view for this film. Standing guard at a checkpoint like this is usually boring monotonous work. When the men of the company have their tour there extended they are on edge. A car with locals comes to the checkpoint. Instead of stopping it speeds past. It contains a pregnant woman and the driver thought he was already cleared. Two men from Angel’s company open fire and kill the woman and her unborn child. Later the local militia seeks revenge for the killing and in a foray kills one of the company’s men with a recorded beheading. This causes the two men, Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Flake (Patrick Carroll), who fired into the locals car to become blind with hatred. They plan to retaliate on the village with a night time raid. They target the family of a Sunni man who was recently arrested. During the excursion they break into a home, rape a 15 year girl and murder her family, burning the home as they leave. The two men threaten to kill anyone in the company who dares tell the authorities anything about the incident. Even those who did not actively participate in the atrocity are now guilty by means of their silence.
Many of De Palma’s previous works have been rightfully called hard hitting but there has been nothing like this. You do not watch this film; it is a visceral experience. Many scenes will out right revolt the audience. They are brutal and animalistic devoid of any sense or reason. Perhaps this is exactly the point that De Palma wanted to make about the nature of war. Adding to the impact of the film is the presentation. By using home made digital video, blogs and internet streaming video the audience is predisposed to accept it. This is the way most of us get our news now and De Palma is breaking some ground in using this format. Either side is show as faultless in the incidents depicted. It has been said that ‘seeing is believing’ and De Palma brings the adage into the twenty first century with this film. Many object to this film as anti-solider but it is anti-war. Many of the men here are trapped by ignorance and circumstances. Back home it is unlikely that they would behavior in this fashion. Many parts of the film are disjointed messy. It would be impossible to make a film this hard hitting without such qualities.
Magnolia Home Entertainment is well known for bringing experimental films from the art house and film festival to the living room via DVD. This is one film that will be extremely difficult for anyone to watch. It goes to the nature of revenge, conspiracy and cover ups. While the crimes are horrendous what was worse was normally decent people being willing to keep silent. De Palma put his career and reputation on the line with this one and even if you don’t like the film you have to give him respect for the effort and the innovative techniques. The work ‘enjoyment’ will never be used with regard to this film. There is nothing remotely enjoyable here. What it does do is make for heated debate and conversation and that is one of the primary purposes of cinema.