After a screening of his incendiary Iraq War movie, "Redacted," at the Toronto Film Festival last month, director Brian De Palma was asked why there was no mass, Vietnam-like resistance to this war. "They're not seeing the pictures that we saw during Vietnam," De Palma said. "We don't see Iraq casualties. That's the problem." De Palma's answer was also his justification for making "Redacted," which is a fictionalized version of an actual wartime atrocity, in which a 14-year-old Iraqi girl was raped and, along with her family, murdered by members of a U.S. Army squad. He intends his movie to rally the antiwar troops.
Many would argue that the absence of the draft has more to do with the lack of takin'-it-to-the-streets outrage than the paucity of inflammatory images, but De Palma is correct in pointing out that our pictures of the war have been heavily redacted and controlled: the Pentagon, realizing how network news helped turn the public against the Vietnam War, was not going to repeat the mistake. Yet the images and the information are available—to those who are willing to seek them out—on the Internet and in the documentaries that have poured out of Iraq in the past three years. Perhaps the real question is: do we want to see those images? It's safe to say that more people saw "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" in one day than the total audience for every Iraq documentary released, which includes such gems as "Gunner Palace," "The War Tapes," "The Ground Truth," "Iraq in Fragments," "My Country, My Country" and the recent "No End in Sight," a devastating dissection of the arrogance, ineptitude and strategic mistakes that have plagued our occupation of Iraq.
Many more documentaries are waiting in the wings ("Body of War," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "This Is War"), but they'll face competition from new feature films on the subject. The creators of these fictionalized films obviously believe, as De Palma does, that their visions can alter hearts and minds. Some of these movies hurl us into the midst of combat. Others focus on the domestic damage, the price paid by the young soldiers and their grieving families, such as Paul Haggis's just-released "In the Valley of Elah." Later in the year are "Grace Is Gone," with John Cusack as a widower unable to tell his two daughters that their soldier mom has been killed in Iraq, and Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs," in which a teacher wrestles with his guilt for encouraging a student to enlist. That movie is about Afghanistan; the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller "Rendition" challenges the government-condoned kidnapping and torture of terrorist suspects in secret overseas prisons. Though Hollywood turned out plenty of patriotic movies during World War II to boost home-front morale, most of these Iraq stories are made to protest an unpopular ongoing war. With the notable and much-mocked exception of "The Green Berets," Hollywood didn't make any Vietnam War movies until well after the fact, or used other wars (Korea in "M*A*S*H") to do the job metaphorically.
But the director who dares re-create the Iraq conflict on film is tempting comparisons with the documentary images some of us have in our minds. Can fiction possibly top this mad reality? De Palma wrestles with this directly in "Redacted" by using nonfiction techniques to make his fiction. The movie alternates between a soldier's "home movies," a French "documentary," Internet "postings" and newscasts, all re-created by the director. This angry, powerful but problematic movie thus appropriates the documentary to comment on the way the war is filtered through various media, and to borrow some of its fly-on-the-wall visceral impact. (But if you're trying to make us believe we're watching "reality" by using a faux documentary style, you need actors who never look like they are acting, and this is where "Redacted" stumbles.) Almost as if to acknowledge that his created images are insufficient, De Palma ends his movie with actual (and horrific) photographs of casualties of the war.
"Battle for Haditha" is also inspired by a real atrocity. In November 2005, a group of Marines, in retaliation for the death of a colleague in a road bombing, allegedly slaughtered 24 Iraqi civilians, many of them women and children. The writer-director, Nick Broomfield, is a British documentary filmmaker best known for his sardonic, personal films about Heidi Fleiss, serial killer Aileen Wuornos and Courtney Love. Broomfield envisions the days leading up to this slaughter and the immediate aftermath, showing us three sides of the story: the young, frightened, paranoid Marines who lose their bearings and go on a rampage (most of them played by ex-Marines); the disaffected former Iraqi soldier who plants the bomb that kills the Marine, and the Iraqi family who pay with their lives for these follies. One might expect that this British-funded film would be an anti-American screed, but it is surprisingly nuanced. Broomfield sees the humanity in all his characters. We're horrified by the Marines' indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Iraqis, but we see how these terrified, jacked-up teenage boys, lost in a hostile environment they know nothing about and under orders to suspect everyone, could crack under the pressure. For its fierce 90 minutes, "Battle for Haditha" is the first feature to rival the power and veracity of the best documentaries. But will the American public get to see it? As of this moment, no American distributor has picked up the film. Perhaps they are waiting to see how the other current-events movies perform. (So far, the public seems wary. "A Mighty Heart" flopped, even with Angelina Jolie; "In the Valley of Elah" is disappointing at the box office.) The question remains: is there an audience willing to pay to see these painful images? The early returns suggest the answer, perhaps tragically, is no.