Heart of Darkness
NEW YORK, 19 Dec (IPS) -
Midland, a small city in the heart of the west Texas oil country, is proud to be known as the childhood home of the U.S. president and commander-in-chief, George W. Bush.
Brian De Palma's new movie 'Redacted' is a fictional take on the overseas exploits of another youthful resident of the city, one whose Midland days are not touted by the local Chamber of Commerce. The real-life character whose deeds inspired the film is Steven Dale Green.
Like his famous predecessor, Green fell early and even harder for the charms of the spirit bottle. Still shy of his twentieth birthday, he had already racked up a record of alcohol and drug abuse that included three misdemeanor convictions.
Meanwhile, two years after Bush had declared a United States victory in its latest war, the U.S. Army was experiencing a severe recruitment shortfall. More liberal, embracing attitudes naturally gained sway in the hiring office.
Thus it was that the newly anointed Private First Class Green arrived in another oil-rich country, Iraq, in the autumn of 2005. There, if the accounts of his fellow soldiers are to be credited, this younger son of Midland left his mark on history as well. Steven Green is alleged to be the primary instigator of the Mahmudiyah atrocity, a slightly altered version of which forms the centrepiece of 'Redacted'. One afternoon in March 2006, a group of U.S. soldiers based in that suburb of Baghdad, well lubricated by whiskey-and-energy-drink cocktails, stormed the home of 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi. As two soldiers took turns raping the girl, her parents and five-year-old sister were shot dead in another room, allegedly by Green.
According to the testimony of the other soldiers involved, Green proceeded to rape Abeer and kill her. One of his associates then poured kerosene on her body, which was set ablaze. Following a tip from another man in their unit, four soldiers were arrested for their roles in the crime and a fifth for failing to report it. Green was discharged from the Army on psychiatric grounds before his participation came to light.
The two men who first raped Abeer -- Sergeant Paul Cortez and Specialist James Barker -- ultimately confessed and are now serving prison sentences that will last a minimum of 10 and 20 years, respectively, perhaps much longer. Their roles are merged in one 'Redacted' character, B.B. Rush.
Green himself awaits trial in federal court, facing the death penalty. His cinematic version is named Reno Flake.
De Palma has made a powerful antiwar film -- one that mentions the names of neither Bush nor any of those other policymakers who sang the virtues and ineluctable success of the 2003 invasion. Though a colonel makes a brief appearance to blackly humorous effect, 'Redacted' focuses almost entirely on the lower pay grades -- those in the noncommissioned ranks who do most of the killing and dying on the U.S. side of the conflict.
'Redacted' successfully conveys how the nature of the war and the U.S. part in it casts the soldiers on the ground into an impossible position. Excruciating boredom is routinely interrupted by situations in which moral compromise and psychological trauma are virtually unavoidable. The insight we are given into how basically decent men could have been driven to keep silent about a horror deliberately committed by their comrades, or even witnessed it and failed to intervene, is strong.
De Palma has said that one of his central objectives was to have the 'audience experience what would make a bunch of regular guys do something so crazy'. In this he falls short, because the two central agents of the 'Redacted' version of the atrocity are far from regular guys.
In the first act of onscreen violence, Flake -- in perfect accord with military policy -- fires into an Iraqi automobile that has crossed the 'trigger line' of the roadway checkpoint manned by his squad. Asked later if he feels any remorse over killing the innocent pregnant woman inside, he makes an exaggerated show of callousness that may be read as a desperate attempt to conceal true grief. The meaning of the scene is altered and its power annulled as we discover that Flake sincerely values nothing and is the chief villain of the tale.
It is a fact that Green has owned up to a similar, real killing (though of an Iraqi man), and Flake's act of dismissal includes lines reproduced almost verbatim from an interview Green gave to a military reporter. A deeper tragedy, however, is lost. Much better men than Green continue to be obliged to commit fundamentally identical acts, as policy, as fear, even as circumstantial prudence dictates. How much stronger the film would have been if one of the more regular guys in the unit had been guarding the trigger line and performed his duty. Here the capacity of fiction to get at a greater truth has been squandered.
While the realisation that Flake is a total head case drains him of interest, suitable provocation would have been rewon if we learned that the Army knew he was having job-related issues of unusual severity, just like his real-life prototype. In December 2005, Pfc. Green was officially diagnosed with 'homicidal ideations'. The treatment plan consisted of a few doses of a mood regulator, Seroquel, and the instruction to get some sleep.
Green was returned to duty in one of the most violent arenas of the conflict, the so-called Triangle of Death where Mahmudiyah lies. No follow-up exam was scheduled. Despite his treatment plan, in January 2006 Green found time to express his hatred for all Iraqis to his battalion commander.
Both Flake and Rush are identified as 'Dixie' boys (the soldiers on whom Rush is based are actually from California). Cheap evocations of the 'cracker' stereotype grease the rails for the characters' foul turn a bit too slick, as does Rush's boisterous pleasure in his own depravity. We know in the real world that Barker wept in court as he explained that to live in Iraq, 'to survive there, I became angry and mean.' It is impossible to imagine Rush shedding a tear over anything beside an empty fifth of bourbon.
In the end, De Palma's allegiance to standard styles of villainy does his largely masterful film a disservice. Where Flake reflects his real-life model to a fault, the composite Rush is a pointless invention. His character is obvious and trite: he was born to be big, loud, angry, and mean. His real-life counterparts -- Barker and Cortez -- tell a more poignant, more enlightening, and much more discomfiting story about war's toll on the souls of men.