Redacted: War tapes

Style muddies the substance of Brian De Palma's latest

Early in Brian De Palma's furious misfire Redacted, a U.S. soldier in Iraq echoes the famous quote, dating back to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, that truth is war's first casualty. In spite of itself, Redacted suggests that in 21st-century combat, truth isn't so much killed in action as it is a prisoner of war. With proliferating media and communications technologies, facts have far more opportunities to escape. Whether the truth can change anything is another matter.

Of the many recent films opposing the Iraq war and the War on Terror, Redacted is the most angry, provocative and stylistically daring. It's unquestionably controversial, earning De Palma the Venice Film Festival Silver Lion Award for Best Director, as well as a call from Fox News' Bill O'Reilly for audiences to picket and boycott the film. Unfortunately, Redacted's broadsides skew badly while trying to strike its targets, as if the filmmaker's preparation amounted to "Ready, fire, aim."

De Palma wrote the fictional script based on an actual rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by U.S. servicemen in Mahmudiya, Iraq, in March 2006. De Palma focuses his rage not just at that monstrous incident, not to mention the crushing effects of the U.S. occupation on Iraqis and Americans alike, but at the American mass media, which De Palma attacks for whitewashing the ugly images of U.S. military conduct abroad.

Consequently, the film unfolds through "alternative" cinematic and news-gathering methods. Primarily we discover the story via the digital camera of Angel Salazar, a soldier in Samarra documenting his war experience: "This is going to get me into film school!" Redacted also features simulations of a slickly photographed French documentary, segments from an Al-Jazeera-type cable channel, an Islamist terrorist website, video blogs, YouTube-style clips, taped depositions and security-camera footage.

Rather than present a blizzard of competing perspectives and agendas, Redacted finds a consensus about an impending tragedy. Two thuggish cohorts of Salazar, (Patrick Carroll and Daniel Stewart Sherman), grow increasingly obsessed with an Iraqi girl, particularly following a booby-trap explosion that kills their sergeant. Conscientious soldier McCoy (Rob Devaney) tries to stop the premeditated assault. He resembles the Michael J. Fox role in De Palma's 1987 film Casualties of War, which presented a highly similar plot about a brutal sex crime, only with a Vietnam War setting and more conventional storytelling.

Redacted finds the filmmaker clearly motivated by his themes and technologies, which makes it disappointing that his ambitions fall so short. It may be that De Palma was the wrong artist for this kaleidoscopic technique. Throughout his career, the 67-year-old director has emulated slick thriller stylists like Alfred Hitchcock, and most of his movies feature bravura set pieces, such as the train-station staircase in The Untouchables or Tom Cruise's ceiling-dangling heist in Mission: Impossible. Redacted's best scene plays to the director's strengths: We see an Iraqi driver's point of view, through a broken windshield, as he maneuvers his car through an American checkpoint in a tense, uninterrupted shot.

The faux-documentary style, with its need for naturalistic, spontaneous-sounding conversation and seemingly irrelevant background activity, never feels natural to him. The cast seldom comes across as authentic people, but merely as amateurish actors, although De Palma's script, laden with thudding speeches and clichéd war-movie characterizations, would ring false coming from anyone. The fact that Sherman's sociopathic soldier is called "Reno Flake" – no, that's not a nickname, but his given name – suggests the level of realism at play. Redacted exploits only a fraction of the potential of the media collage.

Redacted contains a montage of actual photos of dead Iraqis, many of them children, killed due to the U.S. occupation. The victims' facial features have been blurred (over De Palma's objections), allegedly to prevent lawsuits, but it's still a powerful, disturbing sequence that confronts the audience with the costs of the Iraq war in the most graphic means possible. Compared with such direct evidence, it's difficult to perceive much from the rest of Redacted except the film's own artifice.