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Days of De Palma (Part 18): Redacted (2007)

We’ve arrived at the peunltimate installment of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma!  (Links to all of my reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.)  Though Mr. De Palma’s output has slowed considerably over the last two decades, he quickly followed up 2006’s The Black Dahlia with 2007’s Redacted.


Redacted presents us with a series of vignettes of a group of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, assembled from footage filmed by different sources, including a French documentary crew and the hand-held camera of one of the soldiers.  (Although the film is supposed to look like it was assembled from real found footage, everything was in fact shot by Mr. De Palma.)

Redacted is an angry anti-war film, and I respect Brian De Palma for so courageously making a movie fueled by the force of his convictions.

But that’s probably the last nice thing I can say about Redacted.  The film is absolutely awful.  It looks and sounds dreadful, completely amateurish.  I couldn’t believe, as I was watching it, that this film was directed by the master Brian De Palma.  And, yes, I know that much of the film is supposed to be “found footage” filmed by the amateur Private Salazar, but it’s not just that the footage looks amateurish.  It’s everything about the film.  The dialogue is terrible, the editing is choppy, the story is embarrassingly simplistic.  It’s painful.

The opening title cards set up some confusion, suggesting that the events in the film are real when we know they’re not.  And everything that follows feels painfully artificial and fake.  All movies, unless they are documentaries, are fake.  But movies that work have a power to speak to an audience, to affect us emotionally.  Brian De Palma could have attempted to tell a story about U.S. soldiers in Iraq using actual documentary footage.  But he chose not to do that, probably because Mr. De Palma recognized the power of fiction to make a point.  There have been many notable anti-war films that are powerful despite the fact that they are fiction, not documentaries.  So this is a film that COULD have worked, but unfortunately nothing about it does.

The dialogue in the film is eye-rolling awful and obvious, and the performances are almost all equally bad.  The whole film feels so fake that it kept me distant from the story being told.  I never engaged with the story or these characters.  We see an introductory speech from Private Salazar, talking into his camera, claiming that there will be no Hollywood narrative in this film.  But isn’t the whole point of making a fictional film, rather than just showing real documentary footage, to have a narrative structure in service of a story?  (And, of course, documentary films also shape their real footage into a narrative.)  And sadly, Redacted DOES have a Hollywood narrative, unfortunately it’s a poorly constructed and often cliche one.  And one that is overly familiar.  When, well-into the film, we see several soldiers decide to kidnap and rape a young Iraqi girl, it becomes obvious that Mr. De Palma is remaking his own earlier (and far superior) film, 1989’s Casualties of War.

I can see what Mr. De Palma was attempting to do, in making it look like his film was completely assembled from a variety of different types of footage: hand-held cameras, news reports, YouTube videos, security cameras, etc.  That’s an interesting idea, and it is a clever continuation of Mr. De Palma’s obsession — about which I have written much often over the course of this re-watch project — with cameras and screens, with characters being filmed and characters being watched.  But relative to so many other found footage movies that have been made over the past decade, Redacted feels very artificial, very clumsily made.  In the best found footage movies, you eventually forget about the device of a character’s holding the camera and get sucked into the visceral, “you are there” mode of story-telling.  But Redacted winds up having the opposite effect, keeping the audience distant.  We’re continually reminded about how fake the whole set-up of this film is.  (Whether by the clumsy staging — Really, a soldier is going to stop to be interviewed by an embedded reporter in the middle of the rain?  And the reporter is holding a bright blue, Sesame Street-looking microphone? — or by the terrible dialogue — for instance, when Salazar is being interviewed by the psychiatrist, he refers to the dead girls’ burning body instead of his commanding officer.  Whoops!  Sigh.  What a silly, would-never-actually-happen obvious moment.)

This film is gruesome — we see a pregnant woman get shot, we see a main character get beheaded, and there are a few moments in which Mr. De Palma is able to stage an intense incident.  While this film doesn’t utilize most of Mr. De Palma’s regular cinematic bag of tricks, we do get a TON of P.O.V. shots — a De Palma staple — throughout the film, as we’re supposed to be watching footage shot by Salazar on his personal video camera.  But these moments cannot save this film.

And while I respect and admire anti-war films, I was somewhat turned off by how incredibly negatively Redacted portrays every single U.S. Soldier seen on screen.  They are all thugs or idiots or cowards.  I am all for an anti-war movie, but the portrayal of the soldiers in this film is so one-dimensional that it weakens the film’s position.  It feels like Mr. De Palma is not playing fair by completely oversimplifying the reality of a complex situation.

The film closes with a series of gruesome still photos of war atrocities, but as with the opening title cards I was left with confusion as to whether what I was looking at was real.  After a fake, fictional film, were these photos real?  They looked real, but then again, the shot of the dead pregnant woman from earlier in the film was definitely fake, right?  And so, again, any power these sequences might have had was undermined by my questioning what I was watching, and wondering why Mr. De Palma hadn’t just made an actual documentary rather than this fake mess.

Whoa.  This was a tough one, and I must admit that watching it made me lose much of my enthusiasm for watching the next De Palma film.  But there’s only one more film to go, and it’s got two great lead actors in Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, so I got myself to power through.  I’ll be back soon with my review of the final (at least for now!) Brian De Palma film: 2012’s Passion…

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000); Part 16 — Femme Fatale (2002); Part 17 — The Black Dahlia (2006).

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