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REVIEW: Redacted

By Philip Martin

This article was published December 7, 2007 at 2:52 a.m.

sgt-jim-vazques-mike-figueroa-keeps-watch-in-iraq-in-redacted

Sgt. Jim Vazques (Mike Figueroa) keeps watch in Iraq in Redacted.

— Undoubtedly the product of genuine outrage, Redacted is a curiously stilted and embarrassingly flat experiment in mashup video storytelling by veteran director Brian De Palma. As best we can figure, it's supposed to be a black comedy based on an actual atrocity - the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by American troops in Mahmudiyah in 2006.

Her name was Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi. And her memory deserves better than this mess.

Maybe calling the movie a black comedy is giving it too much credit - maybe Redacted is only unintentionally hilarious, with its uncomfortably risible scenes resulting more from a failure of competence than of taste. De Palma has managed to take a potentially interesting - if none too original - idea (that of telling the story through "found materials," various forms of Web-based video and news reports through which most ofus follow war news) and reduce it to an obvious and offensive diatribe against bad, stupid and evil stuff.

De Palma clearly hates his characters, including aspiring filmmaker Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a viddy-bit Marine who sees his tour of duty in Iraq as an opportunity to shoot a documentary that will be his ticket to film school. De Palma makes Salazar into a clown, emphasizing his foolishness by having him employ (much of the film is presented as Salazar's footage) the full range of iMovie transitive wipes and dissolves.

Salazar is such a moral idiot that when two members of his platoon - bloodthirsty Flake (Patrick Carroll) and Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) - decide to avenge the death of their beloved sergeant (Ty Jones) by raiding an Iraqi home and availing themselves of the 15-year-old girl who lives there, he tags along with a spy camera attached to his helmet to surreptitiously film the action.

While you might think his buddies would ask why Salazar has the plainly visible camera taped to his head, these are the sort of dull normal Southerners who are too stupid to understand their acts may have consequences.

We know this because every time the fat bullying Rush threatens a fellow Marine's life he does it in plain view of the camp's security cameras. Another Marine, a chicken-heartedcorporal named Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), also goes along on the raid - ostensibly to try to talk the others out of it. Why he doesn't just tell a superior that Flake, Rush and that dumb-bleep Salazar are heading out on an unauthorized mission probably has something to do with misplaced loyalty (these guys may be racially-biased, murdering psychotics, but they're also his brothers in arms).

De Palma has said that he made this movie specifically because he believes the story of American war crimes committed under color of nation-building in Iraq has been "redacted" - edited out of - the official media narrative. And he may well have a point.

No matter what you think of the American adventure in Iraq, De Palma's strategy of presenting the story by means of simulated Web-cam footage, ersatz Al-Jazeera broadcasts and a ponderous fake French documentary that could have been scripted by a Samuel Beckett wannabe comes across as clumsy, heavy-handed and sullenly self-congratulatory. (De Palma manages to remind us he once made an underrated movie about the Vietnam War, a little number called Casualties of War.)

Bitter and grim, Redactedwears its scabby heart on its sleeve. De Palma's passion is clear and some people are willing to overlook the obvious flaws in a film so congruent with their own views on the war in Iraq. The enemy of your enemy being your friend, it might seem counterproductive to impede the progress of a fellow traveler.

But De Palma is bellowing (screeching and cursing) at the choir here; his anger overrides his finer sensibilities. While the director has said lawyers for his distributor Magnolia Pictures wouldn't allow him to refer to the actual event in any way, some of the dialogue spoken by Flake in the film, including a speech in which he talks about his first kill, is taken almost verbatim from Washington Post reporter Andrew Tilghman's story about an encounter with one of the soldiers who was has been charged with rape and murder in connection with the Mahmudiyah incident. De Palma means to suggest that Redacted strikes close to the truth about Iraq when in fact it presents a simplistic and intellectually dishonest argument.

You don't have to be Bill O'Reilly or Michael Medved to receive De Palma's incorporation of actual (although redacted) images from the war in Iraq at the end of this utterly surreal - and phony - picture show as obscene. It's a war crime of a petty order perhaps, but an atrocity nonetheless.

MovieStyle, Pages 43 on 12/07/2007

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