Toronto Film Festival

Two very different movies about the Iraq war from De Palma and Haggis. Plus: George Clooney finesses his way through a grueling press conference.

Published September 10, 2007 12:41PM (EDT)

In Tony Gilroy's confident but overwrought picture "Michael Clayton," George Clooney plays a law firm's in-house fixer who comes to realize that the work his employer is doing -- the work he's doing -- is killing his soul. Clooney's performance is marvelous, so unforced and believable that he almost makes you forget how strained and overeager the movie around him is.

I like Clooney very much as an actor; I don't feel a burning need to be in the same room with him, so I'm not sure why I attended the Toronto press conference for "Michael Clayton." Press conferences can be humbling: There you are, packed into a roomful of people representing their outlets, all hoping -- as you are -- to draw some interesting little scraps of copy from the strange, meager proceedings. The photographers stand to the sides and at the back of the room. When the talent appears, their shutters begin clicking in unison, the sort of soft, clattering sound a field of mechanical butterflies would make. The people stuck up there on that little raised platform -- in this case, Clooney, his costar Tilda Swinton, Gilroy and two of the movie's producers, Jennifer Fox and Steven Samuels, the whole reason for our being there in the first place -- are introduced, they say a few words, and then the questioning is opened up to the assholes.

Oh -- did I write that? First, let me say that most of the journalists and writers in attendance at the "Michael Clayton" press conference were not assholes. A Canadian journalist asked Clooney if he approved of Canada's response to Darfur, Sudan. (He said that he did.) Even the usual "How did you prepare for the role" stuff was perfectly polite and well-meaning. But I single out for ridicule the joker behind me -- I didn't catch his name or his outlet -- who pompously stood up and announced that he'd heard George (these guys are always on a first-name basis with movie stars) had been seen in Venice, Italy, with a model, and he wanted to know how they'd met.

What happened next was slightly weird and kind of wonderful: No sooner had the question left the guy's lips than I felt a shift in the energy of the room, as if we all -- or at least most of us -- wished we could put some extra space between ourselves and this bonehead. In that split second, he'd broken an unwritten rule. The vibe seemed to be, "Look, we're huddled here in this room with our pedestrian, innocuous questions about 'preparing for the role.' Are they exciting questions? No. But here you are, thinking you're being a daring journalist just because you happened to get a glimpse of Hello! on a newsstand. Please go play elsewhere."

But Clooney's response to the question was so swift and so graceful, and so honest in the way he made his irritation clear without breaking the stride of his regular-guy affability, that it made me feel that somehow, one small, wrong thing in the universe had been righted: "Good -- good for you! Good question. Enjoy yourself, have a nice day." I love the fact that he didn't hide how much the question pissed him off, and that he afforded it the 1.2-second response that it deserved. And then moved on.

I'll only briefly mention the Teletwinkie who stood up and, after complimenting Clooney on how funny he was, told him with a hint of a nervous giggle, "You certainly are a cunning linguist." Did she think this would get her a date? In any event, a groan rose from the assembly: Could she have done a better job of embarrassing us collectively? Thankfully, the conference ended not long after, and I hightailed it out of there. A few minutes later I happened to see some hotel staff hustling Clooney into an elevator that they'd commandeered just for him. As much as I, like any other red-blooded human being on the planet, would have liked to get an up-close look at him, I averted my eyes. If I were he, I'd be thinking, Time to get the hell out of Dodge.

Brian De Palma's "Redacted" doesn't quite work as a movie. But it works as something, and the half-day that has passed since I saw it isn't nearly enough for me to process it fully. This is a fictional story based completely on real events in Iraq: The title refers to the act of alteration, of editing or removing sensitive or confidential information, and "Redacted" is itself redacted. De Palma found all the material for the picture on the Internet, in movies made by soldiers with their own cameras and in videos and journal entries posted on blogs and on YouTube. Unable to use the material itself, he re-created the stories he found with a cast of unknown actors, shooting in Jordan on digital video. The result -- a collage of DIY footage, of videos lifted from Arabic Web sites, of wives' heartfelt messages to their soldier husbands via video blogs -- is a jagged, reflective mosaic, a man-made mirror held up to horrible realities that are also of man's making.

De Palma -- who just received the Venice Film Festival Silver Lion Award, for best director -- has said that his movie "is an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people." De Palma's anger at and frustration with the media buzz through "Redacted" like an electrical current. The movie is a challenge, a confrontation; it's rough and immediate. The horrific center of the story is the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl at the hands of two U.S. soldiers. (Again, the script is drawn directly from real events, in this case the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, in Mahmudiya, Iraq, in March 2006.) A soldier who has been recording his experiences in Iraq with his home video camera (he's hoping it will get him into film school) bears witness to the event; another pair of soldiers try, not hard enough, to stop their buddies from committing this atrocity.

I believe De Palma when he says he wants to bring events and images that have been hidden from us out into the open so that American citizens will be driven to take action. But that makes "Redacted" sound like a tract, and I think its meaning runs deeper. De Palma's process alone speaks for itself: In "Redacted," events unfold in ways that are sometimes confusing, contradictory, not immediately readable; the movie's structure alone is a metaphor for the struggle to make sense out of chaos.

Many of us already feel collective guilt about the Iraq war. But collective guilt is easier to reckon with than the personal kind: Misery does love company. What De Palma may be trying to do here -- as he did in his greatest picture, the 1989 "Casualties of War," to which "Redacted" is something of a companion piece -- is sharpen our moral sense into something more personal, and more cutting. He wants us to be informed, but he also wants to make us feel more. Compassion is worth nothing if it doesn't bleed. Over and over again in his movies, De Palma has revisited one crucial question (a question that also obsessed Alfred Hitchcock before him): What happens when human beings fail to act? "Redacted" is a troubling picture about the price we pay for standing still, and for not standing up.

* * *

The general theme of Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" is strikingly similar to that of "Redacted": Tommy Lee Jones plays a father (and veteran) searching for his son, who has gone missing after completing a tour of duty in Iraq. That search leads him down a trail of murder, coverups and wartime atrocities; this is a story about soldiers whose experience of war has dulled their respect for human life rather than intensified it.

Sounds OK on paper, right? But like Haggis' first movie, the much-lauded "Crash," "In the Valley of Elah" goes down like medicine. Jones' performance is the best thing about it: With those bags under his eyes, like depressive croissants, he looks as if he hasn't had a good night's sleep in years. His character is a man with a conscience, trapped in a picture that tries to be topical but has no weight. It feels like a movie in search of prestige, not truth.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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