Iraq War Films Focus on Soldiers

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Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Film director Brian De Palma's latest movie "Redacted" is screening at the Venice Film Festival in Italy.

On the Lido, a paradisical Adriatic island, Venice Film Festival audiences were shown the horrors of war — and the U.S. occupation of Iraq — in two American movies premiering here. Brian De Palma's Redacted dramatizes the inhuman violence U.S. soldiers can be driven to commit in a country of which they know little, except that death can erupt anywhere. In the Valley of Elah, from Paul Haggis, who received a Best Picture Academy Award for Crash, enlists three other Oscar winners (Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon) in a story of the war brought home.

Both films are based on actual atrocities. Redacted is inspired by the March 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qasim Hamza, and the killing of her family and torching of their bodies and their home, by four American soldiers. Three of the GI's have been convicted by military juries, earning from 90 to 110 years in prison. The fourth, who was discharged from the Army before charges were brought, is to be tried in criminal court; the prosecutor handling the case says he will seek the death penalty.

Elah is based on a Playboy investigative article, Mark Boal's "Death and Dishonor," about a returned Iraq vet whose body was found near an Army base, hacked to pieces with dozens of stab wounds.

In their styles, the movies are poles apart: Redacted is constructed entirely of seemingly real snippets of media: YouTube-like blogs, video posts, picture-phone emails and a daily video record of the war kept by one soldier, Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz); it's a multimedia mockumentary. Elah is more traditional, a crime procedural that involves a police detective (Theron) and the murdered GI's father (Jones). But both films have a startling impact and a lingering chill. Just as important, both demand that their viewers consider the cost of the government's decision to invade a land no American was properly prepared for fighting in.

The cost — beyond the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, beyond the toxic inflaming of the Middle East and the trashing of our country's reputation — is surely the reckless endangerment of U.S. soldiers' physical and mental health. They go over to Iraq whole; of those who make it back, many return with body parts missing or minds horribly damaged. Health officials report a huge increase in spousal and child abuse by returning vets.

How long will America keep paying for the psychic wounds its good young men encountered in Iraq? How long will they be emotionally disabled by their experiences? Rachel Maddow, one of the sharpest political commentators around, said on her Air America show a few weeks ago that the war in Iraq would not end for another 75 years — until the last haunted vet dies, still screaming out his nightmares.


What was the upside for young Americans sent overseas in World Wars I and II? Two things: They could kill the enemy, and have sex with the local ladies. Neither applies in Iraq. The enemy is almost impossible to identify — it could be man, woman or child — and Muslim women would risk death if they had sex with the infidel invaders, even if they were so inclined.

These frustrations are at the heart of the drama in Redacted. The Iraqis are not guys in different uniforms, or women one might woo; they are walking frag bombs, more animal or mineral than human. And when the members of one squad stationed in at a checkpoint in Samarra see their sergeant blown up while sweeping a dump site (his severed arm lands in front of Salazar's camera), they gradually go a little nuts.

Their attitude has never been exactly enlightened. They refer to Iraqis as "sand n-----s," and when one car goes speeding toward the checkpoint (after, the driver says, being waved through), they blow it up, injuring the driver and killing the woman in the back seat, who had been about to give birth. After the sergeant's death, one of the squad's less evolved members, B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), starts frisking an Iraqi schoolgirl with unseemly sexual forcefulness.

Later, over a drunken poker game, Rush and his redneck pal Flake (Patrick Carroll) think it'd be fun to return to a house they had searched and pay a little more attention to the pretty Iraqi girl who lives there. They do that, dragging along some of their reluctant buddies, and in a long scene that shocks and sickens, commit their crimes of passion and vengeance.

If you're wondering about journalistic impartiality, I should say that not all the violence in Redacted is the soldiers'. After the rape-murder, one of the squad is kidnapped by an insurgent group; in a video on the group's website, we see the soldier condemned to death, his throat slit, his severed head held up. But, you could say, those are the tactics of jihadists; they're supposed to behave abominably. We're not. And if we did, we're obliged to ask why.

In Venice, De Palma explained that "redacted" is the military's euphemism for the editing, in fact censoring, of impolitic comments in war documents, including servicemen's letters to the folks back home. (The Army also recently forbade its soldiers access to YouTube; but emails and videophone messages still get through.) "Sadly," De Palma said, "the true story of the war in Iraq has been redacted from the mainstream corporate media. I did this film because I believe that if we as a country are going to cause such disorder we must also be prepared to face the horrendous images that result from these events." And in the current video culture, he added, "The pictures are what will stop the war. If we get these pictures and stories in front of a mass audience, maybe it will do something."

Salazar, who hopes his video record will get him into film school, is the movie's recording Angel; he tells one of his squad subjects, "The camera never lies." That's nonsense, the other soldier says, "The camera does nothing but lie." De Palma has been investigating the question of visual veracity for most of his 40-year career. Redacted takes him back, back, past the Hitchcock homages and the action epics, back to his earliest films: Greetings! and Hi, Mom!, two innovative satires on the Vietnam War. The first film has clips of Lyndon Johnson addressing the nation on TV, and a character obsessed with the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. Hi, Mom! follows a Viet vet (Robert De Niro) with a movie camera, recording what he sees and what he does, including bombing his own housing development, an action that kills his pregnant wife and his dog. In the 60s and today, De Palma says, war does bad stuff to people.

His new movie has torrents of words and goes heavy on macho posturing; at times it suggests a ragged off-off-Broadway play. And De Palma is not going for subtlety here: Flake, the craziest of the squad members, has a Confederate flag for his bedspread — he's a lunatic Reb. But Redacted pretty successfully sustains a dual level of hysteria (in its content) and disinterest (in its film-long framing devices). It's an amazingly vigorous work for a filmmaker who turns 67 on Sept. 11, and his strongest cinematic and political statement at least since Casualties of War, his Vietnam film of 1989. The movie is a cry of national shame; for De Palma, it's a new badge of honor for a wily old vet.


The valley of Elah is where the Philistines sent out their Goliath to terrify the Israelites, and where young David felled the giant with his trusty slingshot. Haggis wants you to ask: In Iraq, who is the good guy, who the enemy? And how does one turn into the other?

Hank Deerfield (Jones) is a terse, honorable man, an ex-soldier who, against the pleas of his wife (Sarandon), encouraged his son to enlist for Iraq. Now he learns that the boy, Mike, has been back in the States without telling his family and, much worse, has been found murdered. Was the crime drug-related? Hank is skeptical. He tells an Army doctor, "You know, the Army does regular drug tests on its soldiers." The doctor replies: "Not when they're in Iraq."

Hank knows a lot — the number of men in an infantry, the way a blue car looks green under a yellow streetlight — but he has much to learn about the effect of this war on today's young men. One vet has drowned his wife's dog, and later drowns her in a bathtub. Hank has also hears that Mike had been called Doc by his comrades. Why? Because, on patrol in Iraq, Doc would "stick his hand in some hadji's wound and say, 'Does that hurt?' And the hadji would say yes. Then he'd stick it in again and say, 'Does that hurt?' That's how he got the name Doc."

Those of us who weren't crazy about Crash thought it reduced each of its dozens of characters to one small virtue and big flaw. This time Haggis is more open to his characters' drives and demons. The good guys, the ones so well played by Jones, Theron and Sarandon, have nuances worth noting; and even the ones capable of committing the most heinous crimes seem like decent people to whom some awful thing happened. (Special mention to Wes Chatham, who could be Matt Damon's younger, cuter brother, as a soldier testifying to Hank about the killing.) The combination of dedicated actors and a superior script helps make Elah a far more satisfying film than Crash.

Both films end with powerful visual statements: a montage of real people killed in Iraq, the raising of an American flag upside down, as a traditional distress signal to other nations. We need help, these wrenching films say, when we can no longer help ourselves.