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The Times BFI
51st London Film Festival

Brian de Palma

Hugh Ortega Breton
posted 24 October 2007

This film is about the intersection of media and war, and how this brings the experience of war closer to us all. It draws our attention to our indirect participation in the occupation of Iraq via the digital media. The use of amateur digital devices, video web logs and video cameras also has the effect of creating a kind of immediate presence in the film because we can identify with the cast as amateur media producers.

De Palma is famous for revenge flicks Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), and this film continues on a theme of emotionalised violence in war, formerly rendered in one of his less successful works, Casualties of War (1989). Violence begets violence through emotional trauma. The first message of Redacted is the same: that war is violent and much more personal than we normally want to admit.

On one level there is an ideological critique of regime change, represented through the sense of futility experienced by the soldiers serving there, and the ineffectiveness of their checkpoint procedures. There is also a critique of masculinity at the forefront via the contrasting representations of women as pornographic objects and mothers, wives, and schoolchildren, all seemingly victims of masculine tendencies. We know however that the situation is much more complex than this. This wider, more complex picture however is not the subject of this film: the subject is a small unit of American soldiers working a checkpoint and waiting to go home, and how each man attempts to make the best of his experience and cope with his emotions.

The film’s main message seems to be ‘what happens in Iraq, does not stay in Iraq’ a reversal of a comment made in the film when soldiers who commit rape then attempt to guarantee their immunity from prosecution by intimidating their fellow soldiers. This message obviously refers to the fact that the occupation is brought home to us all through the media. But there seems to be another, more compelling and personal mediation, made explicit through the breakdown of the main video maker in the unit – Angel Salazar. Our ‘messenger’, who becomes the victim of a reprisal for the rape he filmed, can no longer sleep because of his nightmares. It is not without some beautiful irony that Salazar is released from his personal nightmare by the men he calls his enemies because he is too busy focusing on his adored camera lens. And it is even more appropriate that this is done by beheading him, on video; his mind, the root of his torture, disembodied for an eternal nightmare, his now lifeless eyes staring into the camera. The more fundamental medium conveyed by these lifeless eyes is our feelings: we are implicated through our emotional identifications with images of war, and yet, in the words of Salazar, ‘people watch and they do nothing’.

To make the most of its rhetorical ideological function, this film could have been made, and should have been made, at the beginning of the Second Iraq War in 2003. I say this because the mere crossing of different digital media and news genre devices has been done to greater effect before, but also because the critique of a specific form of traditional heterosexual masculinity, through creating an emotive revulsion towards it, has also been done, in a more nuanced fashion, elsewhere.

The best performances come from Rob Devaney, playing the friendly and humane Lawyer McCoy and Daniel Stewart Sherman, who plays Specialist BB Rush a convincing revolting ape. The most dynamic and affective character must be Flake, his sidekick, chief perpetrator of the rape, redneck and the mouthpiece for making explicit the contradictions of warfare. We are encouraged to dislike him for his racism and chauvinism, but despite this it is Flake that contemplates and informs us most of real contradictions. He tells us and his unit what no one else is able to say: he is the joker in the pack, a wild card able to signify many things. Flake is our anger, our detachment, our pain, our fear and our denial and his actions punish our inactions. Most of all he represents the repressed, unbearable kernel of our post–ideological times: the utter meaninglessness of (and for that all the more terrifying) his actions.

Will this movie indirectly change the course of Anglo–American foreign policy by inducing guilt about our pornographic consumption of the horrors of war? I doubt it very much. Is it worth watching? No. We are made to expect a saga of censorship, but what is actually being redacted is our ability to respond to the atrocities of war in a measured and considered way that takes into account its complex cultural trajectories of politics, race and gender. This is definitely a powerful anti-war movie, but its power is diffused inwardly rather than outwardly focused onto the centres of political power. The dead cannot see, but neither can the living when the feeling is too strong to be understood.


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