'Redacted' is one big mess

Times Staff Writer

To see Brian De Palma's "Redacted" is to be reminded of what a 17th century French nobleman, the Duc de Villars, famously asked Louis XIV: "Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies."

"Redacted" means edited, and De Palma, whose "Casualties of War" is one of the underrated films to come out of the Vietnam conflict, is furious, his director's statement says, at the way "the true story of our Iraq War has been redacted from the Main Stream Corporate Media."

His film, shot quickly with little-known actors, is a fictionalized examination of the before, during and after of an attack a group of American troops were reported to have made on an Iraqi family, raping the teenage daughter and killing her relatives.

For his temerity in choosing this subject matter, De Palma has been predictably attacked by TV's army of professional patriots. The problem with "Redacted," however, is not with its subject matter, nor with its defensible decision to close by showing gruesome documentary photographs of dead Iraqis. It's that by any rational standard, this film is kind of a mess. Even if you agree with its politics, you will probably weep at the ineptitude of it all.

In this, "Redacted" is the latest in a series of films, including "In the Valley of Elah" and "Rendition," that have misfired in their attempt to dramatize the war in Iraq. Too preachy and earnest, none of the group have the brio that made David O. Russell's Kuwait war film "Three Kings" both memorable and successful.

The genre that has prospered during this war is the documentary, and that's part of "Redacted's" problem. Because so many excellent docs such as "Gunner Palace," "Occupation: Dreamland," "The Ground Truth" and "The War Tapes" have shown us exactly what the troops in Iraq are like, to sit through a motion picture as heavy-handed, didactic and rife with caricature as De Palma's is as frustrating as it is painful.

De Palma also created the script, and one of his ideas is an intriguing one. The notion is to show the war not as a written drama but through a range of media sources created for the film, things like surveillance videos, Arab language TV news, a blog called a Soldier's Wife and a terrorist website.

Two sources, however, dominate "Redacted." One is a video diary kept by a young soldier named Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who vows to shoot whatever he sees and hopes that the result will be "my free pass into film school" once he's back home.

Salazar and his buddies are stationed at a checkpoint that just happens to be the subject of a somber French documentary called "Barrage" (French for checkpoint).

In theory, these two points of view could play off each other to interesting effect, but the reality is they just provide two sources for frustration.

For one thing, the soldiers we see are the opposite of the creme de la creme: If there is a stupid, offensive thing to be done, they do it, from shooting a pregnant woman by mistake to fondling Iraqi women under the guise of conducting security searches.

Even when they are doing nothing but needling one another in their quarters, everything about these soldiers, including their stance as well as their dialogue, feels fake, mannered and contrived, unmistakably the work of posturing actors and not actual combatants.

The sense of frustration and annoyance that "Redacted" elicits is intensified during the film's rape scene, which is painful three times over. Once because we are witnessing a horror, twice because we know that situations like this may well exist and three times because watching such a crude and feeble representation insults the reality it is trying to recapture.

The same is true for those photographs at the end of the film, which are now shown with the faces of the victims obscured. This awful reality can't help but underline what a sham it is we've been watching up to now.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"Redacted." MPAA rating: R for strong disturbing violent content, including a rape, pervasive language and some sexual references/images. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In limited release.

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