- 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."
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.
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.
Support Our Troops. But please Ignore Those Corpses.
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..."