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Friday, Oct. 24, 2008
New war, but same old story
Brian De Palma is a man of contradictions. The director is known for filming spectacular scenes of violence: Just think of the elevator slashing in "Dressed To Kill," Al Capone's baseball bat in "The Untouchables" or pretty much all of "Scarface." Yet his riskiest and maybe best film, 1989's "Casualties of War," looked at an unspeakable act of violence — the wartime rape and murder of a Vietnamese civilian by U.S. soldiers — and brimmed with moral outrage.
Jingoists — and there were plenty of them after eight years of Ronald Reagan — couldn't get past the fact that "Casualties" depicted U.S. troops committing a war crime, and they attacked the film as simply more liberal America-bashing, as if ignoring war crimes is the patriotic thing to do. (Wasn't that what the "good Germans" did during the Third Reich?)
But this view willfully ignored what De Palma was trying to portray; "Casualties" was a detailed look at the pressures of survival in a guerrilla war, how war's brutality can lead a man to nihilism, and the great moral strength needed to resist that. Sean Penn's raging, out-of-control sergeant, Michael J. Fox's ineffectual nice guy, and Thuy Tu Le's brave performance as the terrorized victim made "Casualties" an unforgettably painful portrait of war's dehumanizing effects.
Two decades later, De Palma is right back there again, with a new war but the same story. "Redacted" is a faux- documentary look at the rape and killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family by rogue U.S. soldiers. While fictionalized, the film is clearly based on a March 2006 incident in Mahmudiya, which was widely publicized and resulted in court-martials of those involved.
The fact that De Palma is telling us almost the same story again seems to be the point: We have learned nothing.
Stamping out a guerrilla war as a foreign occupying force didn't work for the United States in Vietnam, and it won't work now in Iraq. We see the same stress on U.S. troops isolated from and paranoid of the local population — this time it's hajis instead of gooks — and, predictably, the same excesses and mistakes.
Yet there is the view in neoconservative circles that Vietnam was not lost due to these essentials but rather due to the media, who covered the war negatively.
This time round, the Pentagon has carefully limited media access; De Palma's film is largely a reaction to that. "Redacted" refers to the censoring of official documents before they are made public, and De Palma's film attempts to show us the realities that have been kept from us, to make us consider the human cost of the Iraq war — on all sides.
The film began when De Palma was offered $5 million to make a quick movie on HDV. He settled on a format that reflected the topic; "Redacted" looks like a documentary assembled from a myriad of electronic media: soldiers' HandiCam videos, jihadi Web-site snuff, YouTube postings, French documentary footage, security-camera recordings, even a scene shot on a cell phone.
The effect is a little jarring: Some 10 minutes into the film, the tone shifts so wildly — from a shakily shot barracks video to a stately documentary, complete with voice-over and classical soundtrack — that I thought the wrong film had been dubbed onto the DVD preview copy.
This jumble of perspectives seems intentional: half a prosecutor's assemblage of evidence of a crime, half a reminder that the war's big picture remains on the fringes and can only be glimpsed by sifting the miasma of Web videos. The media, De Palma is quite clear in pointing out, are not doing their job of showing us the reality on the ground in Iraq.
The film follows one squad of U.S. infantry through dull yet paranoid hours spent manning a checkpoint. Nothing happens for the longest time, but when it does — a car that refuses to stop — the results are quick and fatal. When a trusted leader gets killed by an IED, several soldiers suspect the locals and decide to take revenge. Other soldiers — good men — hear talk of rape and can't believe it, but they seem unable to stop it. The resulting atrocity is portrayed in the creepy greenish glow of a night-vision camera.
Critics who say the film is one-sided do have a point; the U.S. troops are seen through the perspective of a crime while the insurgents — whose crimes have vastly higher body counts — are barely glimpsed. Why are the soldiers manning that checkpoint? Obviously, to prevent suicide car bombings. The checkpoint system, home to so many tragic accidents, would not even be necessary were it not for the ruthless mass-murder tactics of the jihadis.
But that is the story we already see on the evening news. De Palma's film is a chilling reminder of what we don't see, of how dirty the war has become, and a warning to keep our eyes open lest we too become "good Germans."