Reviewer: James van Maanen
To Iraq. And back. Followed by torture, terrorism, genocide--and history.
The films under consideration and their ratings (out of five):
Redacted (* * *½)
In the Valley of Elah (* * *½)
Rendition (* * * *)
Terror's Advocate (* * *)
Screamers (* * *)
Goya's Ghosts (* * * *½)
One of the beauties of DVDs is that you can rent a batch of similarly-themed movies and--over a weekend or a week--expand your knowledge and appreciation of our world due to the opportunity to see these films (along with their "Special Feature" extras) as a group in which one enriches the next and/or harks back to its predecessor. A single day in February saw the release of four such movies (Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Terror's Advocate) preceded one week earlier by Screamers and followed the week after by Goya's Ghosts, a film that surprised me by unexpectedly bringing many of the themes of the former five together under the panoply of history.
Brian De Palma's Redacted is commendable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is only the second movie I know of (after Philip Haas' The Situation) to deal with the current Iraq war as narrative rather than documentary--even though the incident on which it is based should be well-known to anyone who has followed this despicable war. During festival jaunts and upon its commercial release, the film divided critics. Commercial audiences, as expected, stayed away in droves. DVD may be the perfect format in which to view this ragged, challenging, alternately moving, funny and frightening feature that uses several video formats (home movies via camcorder, stationery surveillance cameras, a documentary being made by a French crew and Al Jazeera-like newscasts) to piece its story together.
Writer/director De Palma has done a fine job of assembling the pieces: his movie clips along at a good pace, and you won't get lost amidst the disparate characters and locations. You'll also come to know enough about the recruits to understand their actions--which is what I think De Palma most wants us to do. This does not mean we approve, but simply better comprehend. We may also begin to ask some worthwhile (if nearly eight-year-old) questions: What kind of soldiers are we accepting into the military today? What kind of training (not to mention protection--armor and the like) are we giving them?
Only at its end does the movie feel both forced and not enough. Perhaps the actors did not rise to the occasion, or maybe the finale in the bar was not the best choice of a concluding scene. Even if De Palma means to lay responsibility at the feet of Americans who blindly elect incompetent leaders and then follow them into the abyss (a point I would agree with), what we see and hear seems underwritten and overacted. Still, what precedes this scene puts you squarely in the soldiers' position and sculpts events so that they cohere about as well as anything I've seen--including most of the documentaries.
The return of American soldiers from the first Iraq war, in which there was little or no "ground" action, nonetheless left some infantrymen (and women) in terrible disrepair, suffering ailments our military either refused to acknowledge or swept under the usual carpet (remember Agent Orange from Vietnam?). The current Iraq war will leave returning soldiers--and our country--much worse off, which is the point of writer/director (from a story co-written with Mark Boal) Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah. The title pertains to the Biblical location in which David slew Goliath, and it is among the few symbolic notions that Haggis has needlessly dragged into his movie and then made too much of (he had a lot more of these in his overrated Crash). The story--in which Tommy Lee Jones plays a father insistently looking for answers to his Iraq War vet son's disappearance--is no metaphor and is sturdy enough to stand on its own.
Basically an "investigation" movie (of a crime, of the military then and now, of soldiers' bonding, of prejudice and more), Elah boasts generally good writing and direction plus fine performances from Jones, Charlize Theron and a number of young and old men who play soldiers, current and ex-. In the course of the investigation, what slowly becomes clear is scary indeed. Who are these men returning from Iraq, what have they become, and how will our society be able to cope with them? If the denouement is a tad obvious (a quality Haggis demonstrated both in Crash and in his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby), it also seems truthful. And the aftermath has barely begun.
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