One of the few positive developments to come out of the war in Iraq has been the rise of an engaged and furiously creative school of documentary and meta-documentary filmmaking. "No End in Sight," "The War Tapes," "The Road to Guantanamo," "The Ground Truth" - it's difficult to single any of these out as the best.
With the arrival of Brian De Palma's "Redacted," though, we can safely say we've found the worst.
A crude, unbearably smug attempt to provoke outrage from a filmmaker desperate to be relevant again, the film "visually documents imagined events before, during, and after a 2006 rape in Samarra," according to an opening title card. Actually, De Palma's being coy: The event he's alluding to is the March 12, 2006, rape of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and the murder of her family by five US soldiers in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. (Three of the men have been court-martialed and are serving long prison sentences with possibility of parole; the case was covered in the US media and, less gingerly, abroad.)
It's a sickening tale, and one that shouldn't be shoved under a rock, but De Palma, quivering with righteousness, turns it into a bad home movie. He fictionalizes details of service branch (Marines rather than Army soldiers) and setting (Samarra rather than Al-Mahmudiya), and he has one idea that must seem novel if you're over 50 and you've just discovered YouTube: multiple video sources.
So one of the Marines, Salazar (Izzy Diaz), is making his own front-line documentary - he hopes it'll get him into film school back home - and much of the early footage consists of his fellow grunts telling him where to stick that camera as they wearily man their checkpoints and conduct house-to-house sweeps.
"Redacted" abruptly cuts from these scenes to fake European and Al Jazeera-style newscasts, to surveillance-cam footage outside the Marine base, to reports from embedded journalists, to the video-blogs of Army wives, US antiwar activists, and Iraqi insurgents. In his sharpest joke, De Palma creates an ersatz French documentary about the Marine unit, complete with pretentious music and long, languorous shots that go nowhere.
Structurally this is pretty smart - not as original as De Palma thinks it is, but still a way to show how truth can get lost amid a barrage of viewpoints, and how it sorely needs to be sifted out again.
Unfortunately, the content filling that structure is junk. "Redacted" wants to grind the worst results of our current foreign policy in our faces - fine, bring it on, we can take it - but De Palma's methods are ham-fisted and condescending. The unknown actors playing the Marines are terrible for the most part, unable to make the simplest lines of dialogue sound believable. In their defense, the dialogue leans toward the wincingly obvious (Salazar: "The camera never lies." Marine: [Expletive]! That's all it does.")
The two Marines (Patrick Carroll, Daniel Stewart Sherman) who lead the attack are redneck cartoons who'd twirl their moustaches if they had them; they're so evil and debased that they're impossible to buy as real people (and, yes, I'm open to the possibility that the actual perpetrators were just as evil and debased, in which case it's the filmmaker's job to portray them convincingly).
The rape and murders, when they come, are filmed in night-vision, with the green haze and bioluminescent eyeballs of a military raid or an amateur sex video. It's an awful sequence and it should be - a snuff film unfolding before our eyes - but you can almost hear De Palma laugh as he bends us bourgeois moviegoers to his rack. "Redacted" bullies the audience so vigorously and with such contempt that we have no choice but to resent the tactics. Maybe De Palma's thinks he's being Brechtian; maybe the film's stridency is meant to pop us up to a higher level of analysis. Somehow I doubt it.
Late in the game, "Redacted" tries to score points with its use of photos from the war: horrific shots of blasted corpses, many of them women and children. (Some of the dead have had black bars superimposed over their eyes by the producers, against the filmmaker's wishes.) These are images we need to confront, but their purpose here is fishy. Were some of these people killed by insurgent bombs? It would be helpful to know, but coming after the preceding 90 minutes, De Palma's math is clear: We did this.
Maybe we did. Maybe we need to mourn the miscalculations and losses of this war in the most direct manner possible. Why shouldn't a filmmaker responsibly address this? Wait, one has: The British director Nick Broomfield, whose "Battle for Haditha" docu-fictionalizes a similar atrocity using a similar multi-viewpoint approach. It's a film that succeeds on every point at which "Redacted" fails, not least because it insists on the tragic, screwed-up humanity of everyone involved. ("Haditha" played this year's Toronto Film Festival but as yet has no US release date.)
Back when De Palma was a merry young prankster, his 1970 comedy "Hi, Mom!" featured a fake African-American off-off-Broadway musical called "Be Black Baby" in which the cast set upon the upscale white audience with baseball bats. It was a joke and it stung hard. "Redacted" is the director's attempt to remake "Be Black Baby" for the Bush Jr. era - to beat us into awareness. This time the joke's on him.