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by Peter Sobczynski

"Casualties Of War"
5 stars

Brian De Palma has been making films for over for decades now and if there is one unifying element to them, it is his utter refusal to make things easy or comfortable for critics or audiences. It isn’t as if he doesn’t know how to do that–as such blockbusters as “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible” have demonstrated, he has the skills to make a crowd-pleasing entertainment as deftly and entertainingly as such contemporaries as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese–but it is clear that those are not the kinds of films that he is interested in making unless he absolutely needs to in order to re-establish his commercial standing with studio executives who are only interested in the bottom line. Instead, he has shown more of an interest in making dark and cynical explorations of moral ambiguity in which the bad guys are rarely punished for their misdeeds and the good guys often pay a severe physical or psychological price for their efforts in the end. Throw in loads of black humor, startling violence and a subversive willingness to play with genre and stylistic conventions and you have the kind of filmmaker whose works wind up being misunderstood by critics who prefer to write him off as a has-been rather than grapple with the complexities that he has to offer them and ignored by audiences who simply want to have a good time at the movies with no sinister aftertaste to deal with later on.

This pattern continues unabated with his latest work, the highly controversial war drama “Redacted.” Like a number of current fiction films (“In the Valley of Elah,” “The Kingdom,” “Lions For Lambs”), it deals with the war in Iraq but unlike those other films, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the subject by either paying intellectual lip-service to the subject (as with “Elah” and “Lions For Lambs”) or by ignoring the realities in order to transform the material into a more commercially viable piece of product (“The Kingdom). Instead, he brings the ugliness and insanity of war to us by recounting a lightly fictionalized version of a actual and well-documented atrocity in a manner that eschews his celebrated cinematic style for a deliberately harsh and jagged cinema verite approach that indicts everyone–the soldiers who committed the crime, the military that tacitly allowed such a mindset to develop through their shoddy planning for the conflict, the enemy combatants whose own savagery is not to be underestimated and a media corps that has allowed itself to become a toothless joke–as being equally responsible for what transpires. The result is a shattering and angry work of socially committed cinema that is one of the most emotionally devastating films of De Palma’s entire career and easily the best non-documentary film inspired by our current misadventures in Iraq.

Using a variety of faux-media sources–video cameras carried by soldiers, news reports, video blogs, security cameras and an ersatz French documentary–“Redacted” pieces together the story of an American army platoon stationed at a checkpoint in Samarra in the spring of 2006. These are not the gung-ho and thoroughly professional soldiers that you like to think our serving our interests over there. Instead, they are young, restless, barely trained and with almost zero knowledge of the country and the people that they supposed to be liberating. Most of all, they are frustrated–frustrated by the overwhelming heat, frustrated by the threat of danger that exists all around them from the locals and frustrated by the fact that their tour of duty has just been extended yet again because of a troop shortage. One day, these frustrations boil over and when a car refuses to stop when going through the checkpoint, new recruit Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) opens fire. On the one hand, you can’t entirely blame him for his actions–that is his job, after all, and there are plenty of signs in the area warning of the consequences that will befall those who fail to obey orders. On the other hand, such signs may be useless in a land where a large majority of the population are illiterate and when it turns out that the car contained a man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital because she is in labor, Flake remains curiously unmoved–in fact, he brags to his buddies that “it was like gutting catfish.”

The woman and her unborn child die from their injuries and when the news is broadcast throughout the region, it causes an uproar among the populace and through an insurgent website, we see a reprisal being set up and executed that results in the death of one of the American soldiers. This action inflames tensions even more and Flake, along with sadistic buddy Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), comes up with their own form of revenge. Having raided a nearby house, as part of a highly suspect search, and detained the head of the household, they decide to return later that evening so that they can vent all their frustrations by raping the man’s 15-year-old daughter. Flake and Rush try to goad their buddies into joining in as well–the quiet and intellectual Blix (Kel O’Neill) refuses to have anything to do with it, straight-arrow Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) goes along in the hopes that he can talk some sense into them and defuse the situation before anything bad can happen and budding filmmaker Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) tags along with a hidden camera in the hopes that the footage he captures will be his ticket into film school once he gets out of the military. Despite McCoy’s best efforts, the rape not only goes off but Flake and Rush kill the girl and the rest of her family in the process and in the aftermath, the two of them threaten their comrades to keep a lid on what happened, the guilt-stricken McCoy struggles with whether to keep his mouth shut or report what happened to his superiors and Salazar learns the hard way that just because you are standing off to the side wielding a camera instead of a weapon, that neither excuses you from complicity nor protects you from any further retaliation.

“Redacted” will no doubt remind viewers of “Casualties of War,” De Palma’s 1989 drama about another wartime rape/murder involving American troops, that one based on a real-life incident that occurred in Vietnam in 1966. Some have wondered as to why De Palma would want to tell essentially the same story twice and have offered up any number of icky speculations as to his reasons. I suspect that his reasons for doing this are two-fold. For starters, I think that by showing what is more or less the same crime unfolding in two different wartime settings separated by four decades, he is trying to underscore the fact that after all this time, the lessons of Vietnam still have not been learned. By sending undertrained, poorly equipped and undisciplined troops into a region they don’t understand to do battle with an enemy they can’t comprehend and immediately plunge them into a situation where death can come from anywhere at any time, it will inevitably inspire a physical and emotional toll among them that has the power to explode into unimaginable savagery and violence in a heartbeat. In De Palma’s eyes, it doesn’t matter where the field of battle is–Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Country To Be Named Later–as long as military adventures continue to be mishandled in this manner, events like those depicted in “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” will continue to happen.

As for the other reason, my speculation is that De Palma wanted to go back and correct some of the flaws in “Casualties of War,” which remains one of the most contentious entries of his entire filmography. As I understand it, De Palma first contemplated making the film back in 1969, when a story on the incident was published in “The New Yorker” but it wasn’t until the box-office success of “The Untouchables” that he finally got enough clout to finally get it off the ground–by that time, the immediacy of the piece, which might have been truly startling back in 1969 when the only cinematic version of Vietnam on view was the one John Wayne offered up in “The Green Berets,” was lost in the mists of time and the film was just another Nam-related work that appeared in the wake of the success of “Platoon.” De Palma’s fascination for complex and highly choreographed set-pieces also seemed at odds with the story he was trying to tell–a movie that needed to be told in a rough-and-ready manner was instead given a slick visual style that was more jarring than edifying. Finally, and most mystifying when you consider that De Palma has never been one to let his characters get away from their traumatic experiences scot-free, he proceeded to do just that when the soldier riddled with guilt over the atrocity that he failed to prevent was essentially absolved of his sins years later by a doppelganger who appeared out of nowhere to tell him that it wasn’t his fault. With “Redacted,” De Palma does not make those same mistakes the second time around and it makes for a far better film as a result. By telling his tale while the war that inspired it is still raging and by doing so in a manner that eschews visual pyrotechnics or well-known actors, it lend an immediacy to the material that heightens the impact and by refusing to tie things up in a satisfying manner, it reminds us that in stories like this, neat endings are a rarity and the horrors that one experiences do not magically disappear.

Outside of the subject matter, the two elements of “Redacted” that have inspired the most controversy are the jagged narrative style that pieces its story together utilizing various forms of media and the performances from the cast of unknowns. Although both have received much criticism, I actually think that both turn out to be surprisingly effective after all. By telling his war story using the same visual formats through which we receive most of our current combat news–cameras wielded by soldiers (which gives new meaning to the concept of a “shooting war”), press reports and insurgent websites, it plunges us directly into the story without the distancing effect that a more conventional narrative approach might have given it and it also allows De Palma to get a few sly digs in at documentarians who claim to be getting at the “truth” with their films but who are more concerned with making their films look good (via pretentiously beautiful establishing shots set to portentous classical music cues) than in telling the story of what is actually going on before their eyes. As for the performances, especially the overblown macho posturing of Patrick Carroll’s Flake and Daniel Stewart Sherman’s Rush, they actually make sense in a way when you stop to consider that virtually every moment that we see them are during times when they are aware that they are on-camera–having presumably grown up on a steady diet of war movies and video games, they are awkwardly trying to live up to the tough-guy ideal that they learned from the media as to how a soldier is supposed to behave. By comparison, the best and most naturalistic performance comes from Ty Jones as the leader of the company and the most professional and competent of the soldiers that we see–his is the lone voice of common sense in an area where such a thing is a rarity.

As a Brian De Palma film, “Redacted” may not hit the heights of such masterpieces as “Blow Out” or “Femme Fatale” and as a war movie, it may not be the most profound cinematic treatment of the subject to come around. And yet, it is a work as bold, engaging and conceptually daring as anything De Palma has done before and as a war movie, it has a raw, visceral power that most other films of its type inevitably lack. The message of most of the war movies that have emerged in the wake of Vietnam have carried the simple and inarguable message that War Is Hell. Instead of simply restating that familiar sentiment, De Palma has instead chosen to show us what that means in grim and grisly detail (right down to the real-life photos of “Collateral Damage” that turn up in a final montage) and the result is a powerful work of instant art that, once seen, will prove difficult for even the most jaded moviegoers to shake anytime soon.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16505&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/16/07 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/03/09 xavier de reymaeker All men have their limits, also soldiers. This film is a must seen 5 stars
1/14/08 harry georgatos The lack of box office appeal to this movie would it's subject matter. 4 stars
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  16-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008



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