De Palma's most successful stab at this sort of thing was 1989's Casualties of War, a film that Redacted is clearly patterned after. Both films are morality plays inspired by true stories, each dealing with a group of soldiers who capture, rape and kill a young woman, ostensibly to avenge the death of one of the their men (in both, a strong black guy who boasts of his invincibility before getting blown away). Whereas the earlier film is unforgettable for its disarming sense of empathy, Redacted is comparatively detached, following the earlier film closely in order to underline the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. The point is that history is repeating itself; fine, but by narrowing the film's scope to this fairly obvious observation, De Palma reduces his subject matter to a rehashed formal exercise. The director's tendency to quote his own work gets in the way here, with Redacted seeming at best De Palma's ultimate expression of the violated woman as an all-encompassing metaphor, and at worst the work of an angry old man ranting about how this whole Iraq mess could have been avoided if we'd seen Casualties of War.
The sense of emotional detachment is perhaps intentional - Redacted is the director's most Brechtian exercise, edited to resemble an assembly of YouTube clips, documentaries and the soldiers' own home movies. So it's a real surprise that De Palma, typically a technical virtuoso, fails to capture the aesthetics of DIY filmmaking. The scenes supposedly shot by aspiring filmmaker Pvt. Salazar (Izzy Diaz) are too orchestrated and clean to be believable, the hi-def images likely motivated by its HDNet-owning backers rather than the director's wishes. While scenes supposedly shot by a French documentary crew contain pretentious subtitles and music, they don't feel like any documentary I've seen, nor do they offer much of a contrast to Salazar's footage. The same goes for the YouTube scenes; as with the rest of the film, the attempts to simulate a lack of intentionality are undercut by their didacticism (a late scene with a war protestor ranting into the camera is perhaps the worst in the director's career).
This conflict extends to the characters, as De Palma cannot seem to decide whether to go for realism or representation with his troops; while the actors try gamely, their characters are never believable or particularly interesting. A shame, because the most controversial aspect of Redacted - its refusal to sanctify our proud fighting troops - is the strongest and most important statement the film makes. For as long as I've criticized this war, people will usually ask if I support the troops, to which my standard response is that I support the honest, hard-working guys who signed up with honorable intentions but not the assholes I went to high school with who were salivating at the chance to shoot towelheads as soon as the towers collapsed. Redacted works best when focusing on the banality of its characters; the rapists tell meandering, self-aggrandizing stories to justify their moral vacuousness while the presumed good guys can only react in stunned silence. I wish De Palma had pushed this contrast towards the darkly comic territory of his early films (it's both hilarious and chilling when one soldier refers to a dead comrade as "our own Private Ryan"), but Redacted never finds any suitable tone.
The most effective scene in Redacted is the montage of images - a parade of dead, disfigured bodies - that closes the film. Almost unbearable to watch, the confrontational nature of the images force us to consider the brutal reality of our five-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq. That the images themselves have been partly redacted by the moneymen only adds an extra layer of irony absent from the rest of the film. It's powerful enough that it justifies the rest of the film, reminding us of the director's fiercely uncompromising vision and finally allowing his anger to take a meaningful shape. If the rest of Redacted had been this clear-eyed it would be a masterpiece, rather than a noble failure hobbled by its own intentions.