Brian De Palma isn't waiting another 20 years to make an Iraq War counterpart to 1989's CASUALTIES OF WAR, his delayed reaction to the moral quagmire of Vietnam. Using the editorial method known as "redaction," by which multiple, often conflicting sources are collated and often censored to form a single, coherent text, the film looks and feels like nonfiction cobbled together out of several independent visual documents: the video journal of a U.S. Army private, a slick French art-house documentary, Arab news-channel special reports, base-camp security-camera footage, Army interrogation tapes, and Internet video posts. Out of these "real" accounts, details of a terrible atrocity emerge.
Samarra, Iraq, 2006: PFC Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a would-be filmmaker stationed at sweltering Camp Carolina, aka "The Oven," begins filming his video diary. Salazar joined the army in order to make enough money for college, and hopes the "war film" he’s shooting will help get him into USC film school. Life in Samarra, where Salazar and his fellow grunts man army checkpoints, however, isn't exactly the front lines. The squad known as the Mustangs which includes Salazar, Corporal Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), specialist Billy Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), privates Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), Sergeant Vazques (Mike Figueroa), and Master Sergeant James Sweet (Ty Jones) spend endless afternoons sweating in the hot sun under 120 pounds of gear, stopping and searching people and vehicles for weapons and bombs. It's tedious and, at times, very dangerous. French documentary filmmakers Marc and Francois Clement, who are filming the squad, empathize with the soldiers’ predicament while pointing out that at least half the Iraqi population is illiterate and can't read the signs; others misunderstand the soldiers' instructions and consequently terrible mistakes are often made. When a car carrying a pregnant woman races through the checkpoint en route to the local hospital, Private Flake shoots and kills the woman and her unborn baby. In response, an IED concealed inside a soccer ball is planted where the squad routinely patrols, killing Sgt Sweet. Tensions and tempers within the unit further escalate when the Mustangs are told their tour of duty has been extended. Over a drunken game of cards, Flake casually suggests they return to a house they raided earlier in the week and take the family’s 15-year-old daughter, Farah (Zahara Al Zubaidi), as a "spoil of war." McCoy agrees to go just to keep them from getting killed. Things, however, quickly get out of hand: Flake winds up opening fire on the girl’s grandfather, mother and young sister. Then, after repeatedly raping Farah, Flake and Rush murder the girl and set fire to the house. The next day they try to pass off the whole incident as a Sunni-Shiite vengeance killing.
Although an opening disclaimer insists that the film is entirely fictional, the inspiring incident is obviously the March 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in Mahmudiya by a group of U.S. soldiers who also murdered her family before setting fire to their home. By distancing himself from actual events, De Palma is able to better speculate on the soldiers' motives stress, fear, anger, ignorance, racism but his most explicit target is the media, from journalists who sell their souls and integrity in exchange for book deals, to cameramen like Salazar who are willing to tolerate atrocities to get a good story. The film is by turns strident, obvious, righteously angry and inspired. It's also entirely in keeping with De Palma's perennial concern that the truth necessarily depends on what we’re able to see or more precisely, what filmmakers like Salazar, the Clements, the news networks and De Palma himself choose to show us. leave a comment --Ken Fox