Redacted was made in Jordan over 18 days for $5 million and has a credibly sun-blasted look. "Welcome to the oven," Baghdad-based Private Angel "Sally" Salazar (Izzy Diaz) tells the presumed audience for his video journal. Much of the action is filtered through Sally's camera and tempered by his promise of "truth, 24 times a second." Everything else is played out on an assortment of blogs, security cams, YouTube rants, Iraqi news reports, and jihadist websites.
Redacted revives director Brian De Palma's 1989 Viet-nightmare Casualties of War. It captures the same sense of men sent on a senseless mission to a country they'll never understand, and it acknowledges the conditions under which American soldiers live. The paranoia is ultra-'Nam, and so is the alienation.
The central atrocity in Redacted is set in motion when the unit's know-it-all sergeant is vaporized by a roadside bomb. But these young Americans are not the fiercely centered warriors of Gregory Burke's play Black Watch; they are crude, less-than-sympathetic constructions that De Palma has assembled from blogs, home videos, and embedded documentaries like Gunner Palace. The war is pitched somewhere between reality TV and America's Funniest Home Videos. Put on the spot by Sally's camera, his comrades reflexively recite official talking points. Sally is likable, if amoral; when he's grotesquely punished, his sentimental buddies take over the doc. ("He was our very own Private Ryan," the worst of them muses.)
De Palma is no less a wise guy than when he made his Viet-era indies Greetings or Hi, Mom!, and Redacted is filled with sophomoric shock humor. An angry questioner at De Palma's New York Film Festival press conference accused him of making a "hipster horror film." Redacted is hardly that reductive, but it certainly reflects De Palma's career-long interest in voyeurism and violence. This all figured in Casualties of War, but there's a difference between making a movie about a war that's 15 years over and one happening today.
Opening amid a momentary lull in public antipathy for Bush's war, Redacted has been variously attacked as arty, cartoonish, and even overly familiar. One might similarly characterize Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings; earlier this year, Philip Haas' noir analysis The Situation was dismissed using comparable terms. But whatever their temperaments, Botero, Haas, and De Palma are fashioning something other than propaganda. Redacted wasn't made to change your mind, but to unburden De Palma's. Tense, sometimes grating, and emotionally exhausting, the movie ends with a snapshot montage of actual atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians. These bloody images, which De Palma found on the internet, are set to the stately Handel saraband that ends Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.
De Palma's distributor, Magnolia, has redacted these photographs, using black bars to obscure the identity of the dead and brutalized Iraqis. The filmmaker has made no secret of his displeasure, but such censorship only reinforces his point that this war has been — from the outset — profoundly and continuously misrepresented. The most authentic thing about Redacted is the rage with which it was made.