There's no way around it - Brian De Palma's new Iraq film Redacted is a complete mess by just about any conventional measure - but it is also as great a proof as I've ever seen that a movie can be a complete wreck and still be totally compelling. In fact, it might well be the most compelling film of the year, both in its thematic urgency and the uniquely cinematic ways that it presents its theme.

Not just any film can leave me literally gasping for delight before the end of its first sixty seconds, but Redacted manages that feat with one of the ballsiest opening cards in recent memory. We are told that the film is to be a fictional story that really happened, and as the twistiness of that concept sinks in, some divine pen begins to scratch away the words in black line, one at a time, starting with the two instances of the word "fictional." It's worth pointing out that the story in Redacted is eerily similar to De Palma's 1989 Vietnam drama Casualties of War, and so the idea of "a fictional story that really happened" isn't so clever as it is matter-of-fact. Godard would be proud.

But the story will not prove to be of particular importance for quite a long while. Instead, De Palma launches into a protracted study of, and assault on, the ways that a TV and film and internet reliant citizenry understand war. About this, Godard would also be proud.*

The film is told through several different audio-visual points of view: the video diary made by US soldier Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) of his time at a checkpoint in Samarra, the security camera on his base, news reports from a fictional Arabic news channel, online videos from both a soldier's wife and a terrorist organisation, and most memorably, Barrage [Checkpoint], a golden-hued French documentary that serves as a dead-on parody of that particular type of Euro Art documentary that traffics in highly symbolic but terribly obvious imagery while whispering portentous dialogue and playing weighty if questionably appropriate music (here, Handel's "Sarabande").

Now, that's so simple as to be cliched, but it works primarily because of how obvious De Palma's point is: our modern experience of warfare is heavily moderated by the media through which we view it. The first Gulf War famously turned cable news into the monster we now know and love, and in the interim 16 years, that experiment in turning the real world into a television program has blossomed into a culture of media addicts: the Information Age means that we all know what's going on instantly, but the cost is that imagery per se has become so ubiquitous that it has lost its ability to mean anything - war, in De Palma's view, is just more reality TV, and it slips through our mind just as quickly.

This is surely why the largest portion of the film is given over to Salazar's home movie. He brags at the onset that it's his key to film school, not because it is particularly well-done (in fact, the video is a cinematic disaster, full of nonsensical first-person inserts and sloppy framing and endless arbitrary moments), but because the mere fact that he is a soldier with a camera is irresistible. It's the ultimate embedded reporting, not art, but he knows it will sell. This calculating cynicism proves to be the character's chief personality trait, making him a sort of Ultimate Media Consumer: he thinks about his own life only in terms of how it fits into cultural discourse, and if he can't take being in Iraq any more seriously than that, we can hardly be expected to do any different.

That said, it's only one of a multitude of strands, all of which combine to tell a complete story that none could have told without it, but somehow everything still seems incomplete, and not just because De Palma chooses to leave the narrative climax out of the film. It's a nihilistic conclusion, that no matter how many sources we draw together, trying to find "The Truth," it's never enough - a viewpoint by its nature is subjective and will omit and fabricate details freely and perhaps subconsciously. There is probably a "Truth" out there, but it's the first thing lost in the jump to score ideological points, whether that ideology is "America is evil" or "film schools are suckers."

The film's big "but" is that when it leaves the bold but ultimately intellectual realm of media commentary, Redacted is a sort of disaster, although the kind whose flaws are much more interesting than successes would have been. Chiefly, I refer to De Palma's attempt to make a sobering anti-war drama through some of the most ham-fisted characters and dialogue imaginable. The story revolves around four soldiers - besides the essentially amoral observer Salazar, there's the beleaguered and good Cpl. Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) and two men of uncut evil, Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman). These latter two figures have been the focal point of a tiresome storm of controversy as to whether the film is anti-American (no, just anti-unjust wars perpetrated by autocratic politicians), and there is no doubt at all that they are vaudevillian monsters. None of the dialogue in the film is "realistic," but theirs is particularly caricatured. And their action that drives the narrative - the unmotivated rape and murder of a Iraqi teenager - although based in fact is so over-the-top in its setup as to cheapen the impact of what should have been an unbearable moment.

Nor does De Palma do himself any good with the trick he plays after the film is over, learned perhaps from Lars von Trier's equally delicate Dogville: photographs of the dead and dying, tossed in to anger and shock is. Consider me angry and shocked, but I feel a little bit dirty for falling for such an obvious gambit. Although, in a neat bit of meta-narrative, the faces in the photos were all blacked out at Magnolia Pictures' request, meaning Redacted has been redacted.

Really, by all the ways we judge film, it's a terrible mess, and while that's deliberate in some ways (the editing and cinematography are inevitably amateurish), in some ways (the dialogue and therefore the acting), it's just unfortunate. But it's a noble and purposeful mess; a mess because it has too much ambition to fit in one 90-minute film, and when that is the chief complaint you can make about a film, you've got something special on your hands. In all its frustrations, this might well be the first great film on the Iraq War.