The bullet veers far off the mark in Brian De Palma’s “Redacted.” Deeply felt but dramatically unconvincing “fictional documentary” — inspired by the March 2006 rape and killings by U.S. troops in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad — has almost nothing new to say about the Iraq situation and can’t make up its mind about how to package its anger in an alternative cinematic form. HD-lensed item, largely using thesps with legit experience, feels more like a filmed Off Broadway play than a docudrama, and has trouble establishing a consistent dramatic tone. Curio biz looks likeliest for this Magnolia release Stateside.
From its title and intriguing opening (which shows words blacked out on a document by a censor’s pen), the film seems determined to explore the repackaging of actual events by official and corporate media. In fact, it does nothing of the kind. From the first sequence, of Latino grunt Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) recording his buddies on video camera for a docu (“Tell Me No Lies”) he hopes will get him into film school, “Redacted” is much more about the process and techniques of filmmaking than media distortion or coverups.
The breezy Salazar’s fellow soldiers in Alfa Company, Camp Carolina, Samarra, fall into the usual stereotypes: bookish Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), who spends his time reading John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra”; soldier-with-a-conscience McCoy, a lawyer (Rob Devaney); and racist tree-swingers B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll). Their leader, Master Sgt. James Sweet (Ty Jones), is a motormouth hardass on his third tour of duty.
It’s soon clear De Palma intends to construct the whole movie from “found footage” — Salazar’s vid diary, security camera tapes, an Arab TV channel, websites (both U.S. and Islamic fundamentalist) or other docus and testimonials.
After Salazar’s opening, the first of these sources to show the outfit going about its daily routine at a checkpoint is a (fake) French docu, “Barrage.” Complete with Baroque music, finely shot closeups and a metaphysical commentary — as different from Salazar’s raw, emotional footage as possible — it’s unclear whether De Palma is parodying Gallic documentary style for its artiness or praising it for its detachment. Whichever is true, pic’s technique is already starting to deflect attention from any potential message.
Drama finally clicks into gear when a car driven by Iraqis doesn’t stop at the checkpoint, and Flake and Rush open fire. Even when it turns out the car contains a pregnant woman rushing to get to a hospital (where she subsequently dies), the two soldiers remain unrepentant. In dialogue that sounds too theatrically scripted, Rush contends, “You can’t afford remorse. You get remorse, you get weak; you get weak, you die.”Violence escalates when the locals take revenge on one of the group, in a well-staged shock sequence. After a night raid on a private house, seen from the p.o.v. of an embedded journalist, and the subsequent media hoo-ha, Flake and Rush pressure the rest of their group to return on a private mission. Secretly helmet-cammed by Salazar, this ends in the horrific rape of a 15-year-girl and the shooting of her and her family.
Shot in half-shadow amid general hysteria, this sequence does have a raw power, but its impact is diluted by the pic’s increasingly wobbly tone and the characters’ lack of depth. Dialogue simply checks off issues rather than developing arguments, and there isn’t the faintest trace of any moral or ethical complexity visible onscreen.
De Palma the technician and film buff too often gets in the way of De Palma the filmmaker with a cause. And there’s little here that he didn’t already say in “Casualties of War,” with which “Redacted” shares several character and story parallels.
Ironically, pic’s most powerful section is its final 10 minutes, as McCoy’s traumatic experience is reduced, back home, to a bar yarn that ends with friends cheering him as a hero. De Palma follows that with a photo montage of real-life Iraqi victims of violence, dubbed “Collateral Damage” — a harrowing couple of minutes that seems, alas, to be a coda to a better picture than “Redacted.”
Performances are of a piece with the material, with a slightly overplayed quality that’s more suitable to legit than docudrama. Locations in Amman, Jordan, do reasonable service for Iraq. Rest of technical package is high-quality HD level.