Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 26, 2007 4:09 pm 
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De Palma’s new picture about the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl and slaughter of her family by American soldiers—based on a known incident—is a passionate screed. It’s a collage of modern media showing what we do and don’t see at home and thereby it seeks to frame this atrocity in a fuller context. First of all you get amateur videos by Salie Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), of the Marine squad in question. Salie didn’t get into film school, he tells us, and now he hopes this video journal will get him in when he gets out. If he lives. Then you get an overblown French documentary (Barrage) about a checkpoint, with ultra-closeups, ponderous editing, and elegant baroque background music. (If this is a parody it’s inappropriate; if it’s a homage, it’s poorly executed.) The checkpoint is the one manned by Salie’s squad. Later you get on the ground interviews and coverage by invented Arabic and American news media. Here and there you get more mechanical coverage (because literally filmed by machine): shots from a military surveillance camera; a piped-in line from a hidden Jihadi night vision camera connected to a website called “Shuhada’ ul-hurriyya” (Martyrs of Freedom); and hidden cameras used by the American authorities to record interviews of the men after their crime. Along the way you also get video blogs by a masked whistleblower and another by a disturbed relative back home in the USA.

The effect of all these electronic sources is a kind of surfeit of verite modes. Sure, something like this is how we learned how Abu Ghraib looked (but only after the information was leaked and Seymour Hirsch wrote about it). And this is certainly one way of showing there are people who know stuff the mainstream media don’t come close to telling us. (Of course we know that, though, and we know about the event this film is based on, from the New York Times.) However, some of the behavior and incidents as De Palma shoots them aren’t believable. Some of the Iraqis don’t look like Iraqis. (It seems part of the film was shot in Jordan. Obviously it wasn’t shot in Iraq.) Salie’s crude filmmaking gives De Palma license also to be crude. But the one thing that may be needed here is a coherent narrative. Instead, we get some bad and unconvincing acting and some overly pointed lines. Unlike Jarhead, for instance, which was based on a soldier’s firsthand (prose) account of Gulf War I, there’s not much effort to convey down time or non-combat interests of the men. This is image overkill, not wisdom.

The unit is part of Alfa Company, stationed at Camp Carolina, Samara—or Mahmoudia, south of Baghdad. Soon you will see Master Sergeant Jim Sweet (Ty Jones), an experienced man, on his third tour, blown up by just the kind of hidden explosive device he’s warning the others about. His sudden departure is to be lamented for more than one reason, because Sweet’s is the wisest voice—but also because Jones is possibly the best actor of the lot. When Salie initially opens his camera, you meet Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and the arrogant, cold-blooded Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll). Flake is new, and when he wastes a young pregnant woman at the checkpoint, he says it’s as easy as picking off fish. Rush and Flake are later going to instigate the unauthorized raid on the house where the fifteen-year-old girl they want to rape lives with her family. Flake is the key figure, the spark that sets off the explosion of evil, and Flake and Rush are the rottenest apples in the barrel. This doesn’t mean Flake’s a convincing or well-drawn portrait. It’s more logical and worthwhile to say soldiers become hardened during their tours (and then later, sometimes, fed up with what they’ve done, horrified). This movie gives us the good guys and the bad guys right away, and there aren’t any gray areas, or changes of character. Rather than showing us that good people in wartime can do bad things, De Palma shows us that mean nasty bad low-life people do bad things, which they were always destined to do, only needing a slight pretext (Sweet’s death; being horny). The notable non-badies, aside from Sweet, are stereotypes: the bookish type Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), who by a strange coincidence is reading John O'Hara’s Appointment at Samara, and the conscience-ridden Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney). Maybe Flake isn’t any more convincing than McCoy as a character, but at least he’s more colorful. If Salie comes across as an audacious naif, McCoy comes across as a wimp. When the rape is about to happen, he leaves the house to keep "guard." He objects, so he refuses to watch. All these actors, except for Ty Jones, seem as green and unready for film work as their characters are inadequately trained to conduct themselves properly in a difficult combat situation.

After this incident, one of the squad is kidnapped and beheaded in revenge and here’s yet another kind of modern video: an Islamic terrorist snuff film, which we get to watch. We’ve also gotten to hear, and partly see, the rape, because Salie has hidden a camera in his helmet for the event. When they first break into the house, suddenly an American TV newsperson appears in there with them. And Rush talks friendly to her. Somehow, that seems unlikely. De Palma’s desire to work multi-media into everything is out of control. This film, which is overtly cobbled together, not surprisingly feels that way. A short sequence of stills of collateral damage victims at the end seems one more tacked-on thing. It’s too short, or too long—those who followed the war have seen plenty of such images, and those who haven’t, would need to see many more than this to make up for the mainstream American media’s avoidance of them.

De Palma made another movie about the abuse of a young woman in wartime—a much better one. His Casualties of War (1989) was filmed almost two decades after the events it describes from the Vietnam War. As with Paul Haggis' currently showing In the Valley of Elah, which more subtly and indirectly deals with Iraq, it seems filmmakers are stepping in too soon for their post-mortems and analyses this time. Haggis’ film comes out better, though. He uses "found footage" too, but very sparingly and to correspondingly much greater effect. There is a sense of slow revelation that makes Valley of Elah, however downbeat and doctrinaire, dramatically compelling in ways that Redacted never is for a minute. A comparison of Redacted with Haggis’s current film and De Palma’s earlier one about Vietnam reinforces the feeling that traditional drama may still be a better way to bring home issues about wartime misconduct on film than this kind of multi-feed pseudo-documentary. Redacted is anything but "redacted" (cut, censored, edited): it feels smeared out all over the screen. Hence the title is a misnomer. With the excess, the effect is unfortunately numbing. I kept looking for mistakes—and I found them—and that doesn’t happen in a good drama, even when you know a lot of it's made up.

This is a valiant effort by Mr. De Palma, who besides Hitchkockian genre flicks and shockers has a history of serious engaged filmmaking as well. But it’s destined to be watched in the wrong way by the wrong people, and has nothing new or satisfying to offer for audiences sympathetic to De Palma’s point of view.

Seen at the press screenings of the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center, 2007.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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