Dennis Harvey November 13, 2007

To their credit, many filmmakers are using their cinematic podium to address, directly or indirectly, the war in Iraq — or “the quagmire,” as many might put it. That may slow down (even if the quagmire’s woes show no signs of doing the same) eventually, given that so far movies on the theme have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public. Maybe ticket buyers just don’t want to fork out cash to get the same bad news they can access for free elsewhere. Starry downbeat dramas “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “A Mighty Heart” and “Lions for Lambs” all tanked. The documentary “No End in Sight,” which most critics raved was practically a civic duty for audiences to see, failed to become even a significant urban arthouse success.

Still, you’ve got to applaud artists for taking on the unpleasant of an unpopular, ongoing war in a commercial climate where it too often seems “the people” just want dumb-and-dumber escapism. Right?

Well, not always. SometimesÑnot often, thank god — even presumably good intentions can warp into artistic misdeeds most foul.

Foul (as in malodorous rather than baseball) is a good enough term to describe the taint left by Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” a misguided mock-doc that starts flitting through theatres this Friday. De Palma is, of course, the baroque stylist best known for slavish Hitchcock homages (“Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out”), horror grand guignol (“Carrie,” “The Fury,” “Sisters”), expansive crime dramas (“The Untouchables,” “Scarface,” “Carlito’s Way”), neo-noirs (“Femme Fatale,” “The Black Dahlia”), and a sometimes-controversial zest for sex, violence, and “sexy” misogynist mayhem. He’s seldom been accused of great intellectual or empathetic depth, and he’s made some real duds (“The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Raising Cain,” “Mission to Mars”). Yet he’s also given a lot of pleasure over the years-including some of the guilty-pleasure kind.

But what’s this flamboyant, surface-obsessed pulp auteur doing making an HD-shot quasi-documentary that fictionalizes one of the Iraq war’s most horrific and politically disastrous (for the U.S.) chapters thus far? Stretching himself, I guess, and airing some personal outrage. Actually, De Palma isn’t quite the filmmaker-least-likely-to you might expect — he started out his career reflecting the radical politics of the ’60s in films like “Greetings,” “Hi, Mom!” and “Dionysus in ’69” (the latter a split-screen record of a mostly nude performance by the legendary Living Theatre). And perhaps the most serious film of his mainstream career, 1992’s “Casualties of War,” was a more conventional dramatization of a Vietnam War crime eerily similar to the one portrayed in “Redacted.”

“Casualties” was about a 1966 incident in which several U.S. soldiers kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered a Vietnamese village girl, an act exposed only some time later when one guilt-ridden party finally confessed the story to an Army minister. “Redacted” eventually pivots around a fictive version of the disturbing 2006 case in which several grunts re-raided an isolated farm house occupied by the Qasim family, whose 14-year-old daughter they had noticed routinely crossing the checkpoint they guarded. The girl was gang-raped, and killed along with her parents and 5-year-old sister. Three of four accused soldiers have since been tried and given lengthy military-prison sentences.

“Redacted” wants not just to re-enact that crime, but also to convey a complex, multi-layered sense of both U.S. troop life in Iraq and outside perceptions of the conflict. To that end, it fakes a jumbled collage of different media sources: The “video journal” of Private Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who hopes documenting his checkpoint unit’s daily doings and wisdoms (“Waxing Hajis is like stomping cockroaches”) will get him into film school back home; a pretentious French documentary about the conflict set to classical music; TV news reports; YouTube etc. postings by soldiers’ friends and family, war protestors, and insurgents alike.

There’s a reason why the “mockdoc” genre has mostly skewed toward comedy (a la Christopher Guest’s movies) — because it’s easier to laugh along with than be genuinely convinced by actors trying hard to act like non-actors. As its principals yell and brag and cuss at the “sand niggers,” “Redacted” comes off phonier and more actor-ish than it would have if staged as regular drama a la “Casualties.” Needless to say, a real documentary would have served the subject better than this pretend one.

If “Redacted” were a well-intentioned artistic miscalculation, that would be one thing — but unfortunately its heart as well as mind and technique doesn’t always seem to be in the right place. As scenarist (seldom his strongpoint), De Palma creates one-dimensional stereotypes his no-name actors are hapless to flesh out. The “nice” soldiers are as flat as the moronic, vicious ones who instigate the home attack. When one of the latter says “My fuckstick needs some pussy,” it’s not appalling, it’s cartoonish, because nothing here convinces. The worried wife from the States comes off like a weepy soap opera actress; the one home-front activist shown venting rage on MySpace or whatever is a ranting hippie-punk caricature spouting bumper-sticker cliches. If that’s what De Palma thinks of anti-war protestors, just who is he for?

De Palma being De Palma, the violence here is graphic, complete with a faked beheading. But we don’t feel his rage at such moments — more like a lurid curiosity not that far removed from the elaborate choreography of mayhem in his usual thrillers. It disturbs that the man harshly accused by feminists in the early ’80s of excessive, sexualized screen violence against women (notably in “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” and “Body Double,” latter featuring a killer’s pneumatic drill descending penis-like from between his legs to “penetrate” the screaming woman supine beneath him) has dramatized war crimes twice-and both were luridly depicted gang-rape cases.

“Redacted’s” final segment, “Collateral Damage,” consists of images of the war’s real-life victims-soldiers, civilians, and particularly screaming, burnt, mutilated and/or dead children. This parade of actual horrors after so much badly faked, mixed-message nastiness sends you out feeling less sobered than insulted. Memo to Brian De Palma: Exercise your politics via checkbook and at the polls. Leave the screen commentary to more cogent thinkers. Now, go and make another “Carrie”!