Dir. Brian De Palma
Premiered at Venice August 31, 2007
Whereas most major films of 2007 thus far were produced the previous year, simply owing to how long it takes to make a movie, Brian De Palma’s Redacted was– incredibly– produced over the course of a single month in the spring before premiering at Venice in the summer. To understand why, it’s necessary to discuss two very different events from exactly one year before its release.
First, De Palma’s previous film The Black Dahlia crashed and burned. Part of the same book series as L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia had been in development since the ‘90s, and with one of the great surviving auteurs of Hollywood’s new wave at the helm, it became one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. Unfortunately, the film failed to recoup any of its marketing or even crack the top-100 grossers of the year, while critics mostly derided it as a soulless genre exercise.
De Palma may have seen this coming, because he immediately began development on a project ripped from the headlines: just as The Black Dahlia opened in theaters, legal proceedings had begun against five US soldiers accused of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl and murdering her and her family in the Iraqi town of Mahmudiya. Although little-remembered today among the war crimes of that conflict, the story was catnip to De Palma, whose 1989 Casualties of War had covered similar ground in Vietnam and been a critical triumph, and who probably saw an opportunity to be the first A-list filmmaker to seriously take on the Iraq War at a time when Hollywood insiders (and only Hollywood insiders) were clamoring for it.
Somehow, what he came up with was a mockumentary.
First developed by the likes of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and Christopher Guest, mockumentary originally intended to parody documentary style, but also made for easy comedy by enabling characters to share their exact thoughts and feelings directly with the audience, and thus reached the height of popularity in the 2000s on TV and in film– we’ve already seen it in action this year with Surf’s Up!
But in contrast to its spiritual predecessor the epistolary novel, mockumentary is not an effective means to create drama, and by using the format, Redacted constantly undercuts its own existence. If it’s based on real ongoing events, in a style typically used to document real ongoing events, why didn’t De Palma just make a documentary? There are many answers one might provide, but none of them reflect positively on the director, and one need only watch the movie to understand why it was a terrible idea.
The majority of the film is told from the perspective of “Sally” Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a PFC hoping to edit video footage of his service into a documentary and win a spot in film school. Through his camera, we see the strain placed on his squad as they are forced to spend an extra week in the city of Samarra. Their sergeant (Ty Jones) meets a sudden death, and nerves rattle until some of the men propose going off-base and roughing up a teenage girl who routinely comes through their checkpoint.
If you’re worried about encountering moral ambiguity or character arcs, fear not; for a movie that graphically depicts rape, summary execution, torture, and mutilation, Redacted is bizarrely averse to offending perceived viewer sensibilities when it comes to characterization: the good soldiers are never morally in question, and the bad soldiers are cartoon villains from start to finish. One of the antagonists (Daniel Stewart Sherman) is so stupid he doesn’t know what Arabic is, and the instigator (Patrick Carroll) wears a skull bandanna on his head and a massive crucifix tucked into his vest, and owns a collection of Confederate memorabilia that serves as the focus of any shot in which it appears. He also drops the word “sand n****r” about thirty times. Good thing he’s such an obvious psychopath, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known that war crimes are bad.
Placing this already-compromised narrative within the “gritty” documentary format places this film within a narrative Uncanny Valley: the more De Palma strains to make this feel real, the more blatant the unreality becomes. The men don’t talk as if they’re in a documentary. Sure, the actors’ tone of voice is appropriately off-the-cuff, but the dialogue itself is more reminiscent of a phoned-in term paper. Everyone always says what they’re thinking, carefully avoiding any repetition of words or phrases, and about half of what is echoes familiar talking points.
Adding to the confusion, Redacted isn’t just a mockumentary, but several rolled into one: interspersed with the supposed footage from Sally’s camera is b-roll from a contemporaneous yet never-remarked-upon French production, Arabic-language “news” footage, staged YouTube clips and Skype chats, and most inexplicable of all US Army security camera records. Assuming that the whole is meant to be a single piece in-universe, how the hell did the filmmaker get ahold of that?
As the film races to a merciful end, a random woman with a voice similar to Ellen Page offers a screaming YouTube tirade to the effect that what we have witnessed is so horrific that “not even liberal Hollywood will touch it.” And yet here’s Brian De Palma touching it! I mean, look, he’s really going there! Isn’t he fucking brave!? How better to pre-emptively defend the movie against the scorn of critics and the indifference of audiences? Don’t like the movie? “That’s just what they want you to think!” Congratulations, Redacted, you fucking win. Here’s nothing.
Fuck this movie. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. Fuck the impetus behind it, fuck the sense of moral superiority that hovers over every haranguing moment, fuck the way it takes the easy way out at every turn, fuck the moronic attempts to insert a fucking sitcom gimmick to be relevant and kewl, fuck the implication that mass murder and gang rape are bad because bad people do it, fuck the implication that that’s the only thing our dumb asses will understand, and fuck the very idea that this vapid, bullying piece of shit would be meaningful to anyone.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film is co-produced by HDNet, an obscure cable television most famous for being the only network that would hire former CBS anchor Dan Rather after the Killian Documents Controversy. A facsimile of YouTube appears repeatedly in all its awkwardly-textured first-generation glory.
The Las Vegas tourist slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” (superfluous comma not mine) is used to defend the cover-up.
How Did It Do?
Redacted got what it deserved, earning just $782,102 against a $5 million budget– and just $65,388 in its native United States. Critics were starkly divided, earning it a 45% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes– reading the negative ones was deeply cathartic after having to sit through the picture– and the film was not considered for any awards but the Silver Lion it unaccountably won at Venice upon its debut.
But the story continues. First, while Redacted crows at the inability to get justice for the atrocity committed, Kurt Loder of MTV was quick to point out that all of the Mahmoudiya killers were being prosecuted at the time– and were ultimately all convicted– making De Palma’s self-congratulation ring all the more hollow.
Then, US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) filed an official complaint to the MPAA that the movie was anti-military– an action unprecedented since the McCarthy era. Even more unprecedented was that critic Kyle Smith, a conservative Republican who opposed Redacted’s politics, then became the movie’s biggest defender.
And in case you needed another reason not to make a mockumentary drama, a man in Germany in 2011 saw by clips of the film on YouTube, believing them to be actual documentary footage, and was inspired to shoot several US Airmen stationed in Frankfurt.
Next Time: Encounters at the End of the World