Friday, October 09, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Redacted (2007)

"All the images we (currently) have of our war are completely constructed — whitewashed, redacted."

- Brian De Palma

During the 1990s, I had a good buddy serving in the American Armed Forces. He was (and remains...) -- in every way imaginable -- a stand-up guy: exactly the sort of individual you would want defending our country. He is moral, centered, responsible and articulate. In all his dealings with other soldiers and with the enemy (that I knew of), he understood when sensitivity was called for; and when toughness was called for. He remains a center-right Republican to this day, and also one of the fairest, best men I have had the good fortune to know.

There were (and are) a great many men and women exactly like my friend serving in our Army in Iraq today. But even my buddy confided in me, at one point -- with a keen sense of disappointment and disillusionment -- that some young Americans join the Army simply because they want "to kill people."

Truth be told, he was experiencing a difficult time relating to this brand of soldier; some of whom were under his command. The aim of these men was not defending the U.S.A or helping other nations. They simply wanted to use live human beings for target practice.

In no small way, Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007) examines the vast gulf between these two brands of American soldier. There are the guys (and gals) in the Army who are just like my friend. These are the patriots who fight for us, and who serve our nation at great personal risk and at great sacrifice. And then there are the others; and they tend to be really messed-up: ignorant, arrogant and racist...and they carry big guns.


De Palma's controversial 2007 film (for which he won "Best Director" at the Venice Film Festival) dramatizes in unflinching, brutal terms how the American military -- and these different types of soldiers -- interface with the locals in Iraq. Specifically, the film deals with the rape of an Iraqi teenager in Samarra (in 2006) by two redneck American knuckle-draggers.

This is a fictionalized account of a real incident. In real life, two American G.I.s in the 101st Division were charged in October of 2006 with the murder and rape of a young girl and the murder of her entire family.

Again, just to underline that fact: De Palma didn't pluck the story out of the ether. He didn't invent it from whole cloth. It happened. He fictionalized the details (because of possible litigation); but the incident happened.

Still, some commentator went nuts over Redacted and asserted that by shining light on such a terrible incident, De Palma was smearing the troops.

Michael Medved wrote: ""It could be the worst movie I've ever seen" ... "[T]he out and out worst, most disgusting, most hateful, most incompetent, most revolting, most loathsome, most reprehensible cinematic work I have ever encountered."

Bill O'Reilly wrote: "The American military is doing important, noble work. Brian De Palma and the others who back him should be ashamed."

All I can say is this: the Medveds and the O'Reillys (and throw in the Hannitys, Coulters, Malkins, Limbaughs and Becks while you're at it...) are contributing to the dumbing-down of America with such all-or-nothing, black-and-white nonsense.

As adult, responsible citizens of the United States, we are all fully capable of countenancing life's contradictions and subtleties. In other words, we can understand that our troops are, by and large, worthy of our support and loyalty.

And, we can also understand -- at the same time -- that there are some who, to put it mildly, are not so noble. To acknowledge this reality is not to smear anyone or any organization. Name me one organization or profession in which every practitioner is an angel. Why would we expect differently of the Army:? And even Thomas Jefferson once said "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Well, how can we be vigilant if we don't know what is being done in our names by our own armed forces?

And that's very much the subject of Redacted: a plea for vigilance in an environment where news about the war is censored, skewed and redacted. Seek the answers through unconventional, unofficial channels if you must, but seek them nonetheless, the film implores.

Why is this necessary? Well, this is a war in which American journalists were not allowed to film the caskets of American soldiers returning to home soil. Why? Because if we had to actually see our beloved dead, we might no longer support the war effort.

Support Our Troops
. But please Ignore Those Corpses.

This is also a war in which embedded journalists surrendered their professional objectivity and road in humvees with soldiers. The consequence: they became cheerleaders. Remember when that "liberal" Dan Rather said "and when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ may be?" Does that sound objective? It didn't matter that we were invading the wrong country; that we had been ginned up by Bush, Cheney and the others on the basis of a lie (where are the WMDs?). But instead of asking why we were at war in the first place with a country that did not possess the capability to strike our soil, the American corporate media cravenly encouraged the war. At every turn. And worse, the reporters even rode with the troops right into battle so they could get better pictures. There's your liberal media for you.

Since the Iraq War began, between 93,492 – 102,016 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Redacted explains why, and in a manner that doesn't, on its face, demean the American military. Instead, it examines a serious problem. Structurally, the film is composed of a variety of perspectives (a video journal; a French documentary, a youtube-like video, etc.) and we get two views which explicitly contradict each other at one point in the proceedings. We see American soldiers guarding a military checkpoint on the French documentary; and we hear the soldiers hollering for an Iraqi civilian car to stop at that checkpoint. The car does not stop -- even when adequately warned -- and the soldiers open fire with lethal force. In the process, they kill a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The family was on the way to the hospital for the delivery...

From an Arab news channel, we get a different story. The Iraqi driver of the car mistook the stop signal of the American soldiers (hands raised, palms up...) for being "waved through." So the driver went ahead. It was all a tragic, "lost in translation" moment. So who, in such a situation, can you rightly claim is at fault? The soldiers did their job; but the Iraqis didn't understand what was being asked of them. The French video also point out that there are signs (in Arabic) all around the checkpoint warning cars to stop. Again, this is true. But as the film points out, it is also true that over 50% of Iraqis are illiterate.

So they can't read the signs telling them to stop at the checkpoints.

So ask yourself: is this a slander of American soldiers? Or is this an indictment of war, and, in particular, the fog of war? The American soldiers aren't portrayed as drooling Orcs out to kill anybody and everybody. And Iraqi civilians aren't shown to be nefarious terrorists trying to blow Americans away, willy-nilly. Again, the movie provides statistics. Only 60 out of 2000 Iraqis killed a month at such check-stops are actually insurgents. Clearly, something systematic is wrong here, and if we don't know about it, who is going to fix it?

Redacted does features two American soldiers, in particular, who are brutes. They are named Rush -- presumably after Mr Oxycontin himself, Rush Limbaugh -- and Flake. These two men commit the rape and murders, and they are terrible, racist, monstrous human beings who refer to Iraqis as "sand niggers." Do men like this exist in America? Be honest: when you were in high school and had to spend time in the locker room before and after gym every day, they were a dime a dozen, weren't they? Why pretend this isn't true? What is served by pretending?

Yet De Palma also presents two American soldiers as a counter-weight to Flake and Rush. First is the moral and decent McCoy, who refuses to participate in the attacks and is assaulted at gunpoint by his fellow soldiers. And second is the intellectual Blix, who exhibits the good sense not to be involved with Rush and Flake. Straddling these poles of "bad" and "good" is the man who records the rape/murder on his camera: Angel Salazar. He is not really good or bad per se; he's just a follower who didn't know when to put down the camera and do the right thing.

I point out these characters simply to demonstrate that De Palma doesn't paint all American soldiers as evil redneck rapist/murders, as right-wing commentators would have you believe. Instead, Redacted represents a nuanced view that asks the audience to consider the morality of the situation, and then reveals characters on all sides of the issue. For instance, Rush and Flake are rightly upset about the death of their sergeant by insurgent IED, but their righteous anger over his death does not justify the crime they commit. Their anger is understandable, but they misplace it. They direct it at innocent people. But De Palma nonetheless presents their argument; to help one understand where these guys are coming from.

One of De Palma's soldiers states in Redacted that the camera "tells the truth." Another soldier replies that it always lies (a reflection of De Palma's personal world view). By fracturing his narrative into a million little pieces (a "Just a Soldier's Wife Blog Site," a terrorist web feed, a French documentary, a night-vision camera, etc.), De Palma asks for our continuing vigilance in determining what is truth and what is lie. His film is built on the presumption of intelligence from viewers; on the presumption that people can view the Iraq War outside the black-and-white parameters of universal, unconditional support for the troops.

In Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon (1950), the director revealed how it is impossible to know the truth when a variety of human perspectives are involved. I wonder what he would have made of the world in 2006 - 2009. It's difficult to see "the whole truth" or even "the whole picture" in this Information Age. We've got Youtube, network news and blogs to show us the world today, but less certainty over those images than ever before in our nation's history. So De Palma can end his film with authentic photographs of dead Iraqi children, and yet war supportors still shout "Support Our Troops" and even claim that those photographs were doctored for a political agenda.

As Redacted reminds us (verbatim): "The first victim in war is the truth." And here's another, corollary quote from the history of cinema that fits perfectly the strident response to Brian De Palma's film. I direct it to the TV pundits:

"You can't handle the truth..."

6 comments:

  1. Good article. "Redacted" is easily DePalma's bravest work, considering a political climate where ubiquitous rabid jingoists declare any art critical of right-wing policies "treasonous" from positions at the forefront of US media... and, unfortunately, place reviewers and critics in the position of having to expend far too much effort defending an artist's choice of subject (even Leni Riefenstahl gets more of a "pass" than DePalma's Redacted, it seems to me)... making it difficult to look at his political movies, which seem to always be "hot". To me, it seems that it's no coincidence that Redacted and Casualties of War share so many themes in common, themes consistent with the politics of his earliest movies such as "Greetings". Both Redacted and Casualties seem to state quite flatly that War is Rape, and it empowers the worst of men and renders the best complicit. Brave thoughts in a time of cowards.

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  2. DLR:

    Excellent comment.

    I spent far too much time/space in my own review defending the artist's right to his subject matter.

    With that defense out of my system, I would like, at some point, to actually look more closely at the artistry involved in the creation of Redacted.

    But Redacted was treated in the press just as you said: as treason. Which of course is utterly ridiculous, and more than a little bit scary.

    Great comments...

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  3. DLR:

    Excellent comment.

    I spent far too much time/space in my own review defending the artist's right to his subject matter.

    With that defense out of my system, I would like, at some point, to actually look more closely at the artistry involved in the creation of Redacted.

    But Redacted was treated in the press just as you said: as treason. Which of course is utterly ridiculous, and more than a little bit scary.

    Great comments...

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
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  5. As I read your excellent article on Redacted and the (Medved, Limbaugh, O'Rielly, etc.) reaction it drew, I couldn't help but be reminded of Casualties of War. I read some very intelligent people who point out that Viet Nam seems to have too much an affect on certain generations' thoughts in that it skews their judgment towards today's geopolitics. And that may some hold water. However, totally ignoring the parallels in these wars of choice (there was no necessity, in either) opens us (and our country) up to more problems and self-inflicted wounds. The Jefferson quote of eternal vigilance is the price of liberty is spot on, JKM. Blind obedience seems to be what the extreme right wants ('dumbing-down' is a good analysis of this). Luckily for us, because of the type of troops we have in the field (like your good friend) we saw a push back among them (though it wasn't covered much due to complicity of our larger news organizations, sadly) on how the past administration was (horribly) conducting that war.

    But, I probably comment too much on this when I should talk more about the film. Redacted is one on my list to see. Your more in-depth analysis of De Palma's film will be one I will look forward to, John. Thanks for this.

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  6. Hey Le0pard13:

    Thank you for your excellent comment.

    The problem is that the O'Reillys and Limbaughs can't see that two things can be true simultaneously: that U.S. troops can be worthy of our support; and sometimes, some troops may do bad things...and should be punished.

    They just want it all to be "Support Our Troops" cheerleading...and then nothing gets solved.

    Redacted is a tough film. It's disturbing and thought-provoking and I want to watch it again to get a better sense of the structure and artistry. But I don't look forward to the film because it is so hard, so brutal...and so honest.

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete