De Palma’s ode to the fruitlessness of war

  • November 18, 2007
{mosimage}Director Brian de Palma is obviously outraged, morally scandalized, angered and saddened by the war in Iraq. A Catholic educated in Quaker schools who came of age protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s, de Palma is not the kind of American President George Bush can count on for support.

In some ways Redacted is not the sort of movie many might expect of one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful directors — one who invented the teen comic-horror genre with his first big-screen hits, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie, more than 30 years ago. This movie was made for $5 million to feed into HDNet’s high definition television service, and shot entirely in high definition digital video — a strategy one might expect from a young director beginning a career.

De Palma has frankly stated his aim in Redacted is to change the political and cultural dialogue around America’s war in Iraq — a high ambition for a low-budget movie. The film has already garnered the Silver Lion (best director) award for de Palma from the Venice Film Festival.

 Like all of de Palma’s movies, Redacted insists on constantly reminding viewers they’re sitting in a theatre watching a movie. It’s another movie about the process of making movies. It’s full of references to other movies, including some of de Palma’s own work. De Palma has always invited his audience to think about his films as art imitating art.

Redacted presents the fiction of a film edited and glued together from a variety of sources — security camera video, home-made video blogs off the Internet, a nearly hilarious parody of a self-important French documentary and a soldier’s video diary. Each of these sources for the movie keep the viewer curious but emotionally distant. It is akin to the voyeur effect of watching reality TV. Viewers can decide who they love and who they hate, speculate about how it will end, at the same time as they question how real the documentary footage really is.

We sit back and watch the people and what they do as if they were animated cartoon characters or animals strutting around their cages in a zoo.

This is a curious way to get people to come to grips with the reality of war. The film is based upon a March 2006 incident involving American soldiers on an unauthorized raid who raped and killed a 14-year old Iraqi girl and then killed her family to cover it up. A U.S. court martial gave the soldiers jail sentences of between five and 110 years for their crimes. Which is to say, de Palma’s fake documentary is as much “ripped from the headlines” as next week’s instalment  of Law and Order. In case we don’t get the reference the meat and potatoes of America’s television diet, de Palma reminds us by naming one of the soldiers Lawyer McCoy.

De Palma wants Americans to stop passively watching their war in Iraq. He wants them to stand up and take ownership of what’s happening on their TV and computer screens. Getting America out of Vietnam was all about unveiling the hidden truth of the war, which is why the greatest anti-war movie about Vietnam was called Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse is a Greek word which means unveiling. Iraq is different in that Americans know exactly what’s happening. There are a thousand different sources of information, and even the most dedicated watchers of FoxTV don’t believe the kitschy imitation news reporting that’s offered up like junk food to the obese.

Americans know their involvement in Iraq is a pointless tragedy, a spectacle that teaches them no lessons. The truth is already out there, and the film maker’s job is to make people feel responsible for it, to move them to action.

 Redacted  is all about its last 10 minutes. After the young soldier who had dreams of going to film school has wept in front of an army psychologist about how you can make a video and people just watch it without allowing it to change them, the film moves to another, deeper sense of witness. Lawyer McCoy’s friends videotape his homecoming in a local bar, where he weeps and blurts out the horror of the rape and murder he witnessed. When McCoy’s witness is met with indifference, de Palma simply cuts off the film and shows a series of the most horrific war images captured by real photojournalists working in Iraq. We’ve seen these images before — human flesh burned and blown apart, desecrated and transformed into death and hate and absence. They are Christ crucified in our world right now.

But will de Palma’s careful, artful construction really change the American debate about the war? The movie opens Nov. 16 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, courtesy of its Canadian producers. It will leak out to other screens across the United States and Canada over coming weeks, but will probably reach more eyes next year as a DVD and on HDNet. The people who know what de Palma knows about Greek tragedy, Bertold Brecht and the history and theory of cinema will see what the director has done and praise it. But the elites already oppose the war.

Somewhere in a mall multiplex on the edge of Salt Lake City or Dallas is a teenager waiting to be convinced that this war means something here and now in America. No clever art film is going to reach that audience. The man who once captured young imaginations with Carrie and Mission Impossible and Scarface might have done it again with an honest story, simply told. He might have imitated Frank Capra and John Ford, film makers who never talked down to America.

Unfortunately, this artful film draws its power almost entirely from the photojournalists who work for Getty Images.

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