Thursday, March 18, 2010

Green Zone

From an opening sequence set during the initial bombing of Baghdad through a climactic final chase, Green Zone proves up and down that Paul Greengrass is still the director par excellence of shakycam action. Hot on the heels of the critical success of The Hurt Locker, Green Zone will almost certainly find itself judged by comparison to Kathryn Bigelow’s feature, aesthetically, narratively and thematically. It’s unfair, because the two can cleanly co-exist as counterpoints for each other: Green Zone serves as the political answer to The Hurt Locker’s humanism.

Like Bigelow, Greengrass has the ability to give each brief shot just enough duration to give the audience some semblance of spatial relations while jumping around to maintain a sense of disorientation. Gunshots and explosions break and scramble in the heavy digital grain, particularly in the many night shots, spreading so wide that one could almost mistake the atmosphere over Iraq as being made of gunpowder and shrapnel. The sounds and visuals crash together so violently you wonder how anyone could stay sane in this safe version of combat, to say nothing of the real thing.

Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) knows how to keep his head, though. He leads a unit searching for weapons of mass destruction, and we meet him as he and his team fight through a resistant sector to reach a reported chemical weapons facility. After taking casualties, the unit takes a warehouse, where they find nothing, their third straight piece of bad intelligence. When he voices this in a meeting, his superiors assure him that the intel is good, despite nothing but evidence to the contrary.

From that moment, any question whether the film would play its politics close to its chest goes out the window. Green Zone is all about rubbing America’s nose in its mistake, an approach both interesting and wearisome. “Interesting” because America is long overdue for a public shaming for our arrogance and jingoism, and the notion that this should come from the guy who capitalized on flag-waving, tragedy-appropriating attitudes with United 93 makes the prospect all the richer. “Wearisome” because it frames much of its politics as shocking twists, seemingly under the delusion that its secrets are still unknown. Green Zone’s ultimate reveal is that there were no WMD in Iraq, and I imagine that even the spoiler criers feel no need to protest me now.

Some of the script’s bluntness has a Fulleresque, no-bullshit quality to it, made better when delivered by the superb cast. I knew Greg Kinnear would be playing an officious executive before I even learned his character’s name or found out that he represented the Pentagon, but, credit where credit is due, he is just such a magnificent prick. He speaks most of the best lines of the film, and I suspect that they are the best lines precisely because he says them. Kinnear’s Clark Poundstone manages to spin everything and shut down any attempt to endanger the party line. He leads reporters like Wall Street Journal writer Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) on wild goose chases and stymies Miller’s quest to get to the bottom of the bad intelligence reports. Poundstone advises Miller to avoid CIA Baghdad chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson); “He’s been in the Middle East a long time,” Poundstone says, “He’s got a lot of preconceived notions.” For Poundstone and the administration he represents, practical experience and firsthand knowledge are not only unimportant, they can be a liability to furthering a political agenda. Miller gets a chilling line across to Poundstone in the end when he confronts the official about all the lies and asks, “What’s going to happen the next time we need somebody to trust us?” Occasionally, someone makes a less expansive political point that is no less astute, such as the angry reaction of the Iraqi informant, “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla), at the excavation of a town square in the search for bombs; Freddy curtly tears down the illogic of such an exercise, asking the Americans how the Iraqi army or some insurgents could have buried weapons or chemical agents without the townspeople seeing it.

Sadly, lines like these rub up against chunks of dialogue so obvious and emphasized that they break the often-compelling blend of fact and fiction. Miller finds himself between Brown and Poundstone and remarks, “I thought were were all on the same side” and Brown responds, “Don’t be naïve.” As if this wasn’t clear enough, Poundstone appears in the next scene, denies Miller’s request for transfer under Brown’s command and tells the solider that he “chose the wrong side.” And, frankly, every scene set entirely in the POV of Iraqi Ba’athist officials -- led by General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), who seeks to make a deal with the Americans to keep the Iraqi army together to help the U.S. maintain order -- with the exception of the cold open only rehashes points made by the American characters. Setting the film entirely in the American perspective may seem a narcissistic gesture, but it would heighten the suspense by maintaining confusion -- when Freddy first comes to tell Miller about the Ba’athist meeting, we know he is telling the truth because we just saw the meeting occur, thus eliminating the suspense of knowing whether the troops would drive into a trap -- and would avoid the repetitive pontificating of the Iraqi generals, most of whom don’t have anything approaching Iraq’s best interests at heart. Freddy, too, oversteps the boundary between endearing and grating when left to give a monologue, preachy and overstuffed affairs that they are. I wanted to roll my eyes during his lengthy speeches, though perhaps that was a result of the camera movement.

This is all the more bewildering given the skill with which Greengrass conveys the film’s politics through those overwhelming images. Colliding shots of crowds swarming Humvees that subtly exaggerate the size and furor of the indignant populace, barren warehouses meant to store WMD that emphasize the failure of intelligence reports through the cavernous emptiness, an American couple casually posing for photographs in front of tanks in the green zone as Baghdad lies in rubble around them; with such suggestive shots, Greengrass doesn’t need to back them up with clunky, polemical dialogue. His visual placement borders on the ingenious with a pair of shots of a detention center where prisoners are kept without stated purpose. On the fence that surrounds the facility, a placard reads that the assigned unit is “honor bound to defend freedom,” a bitterly ironic sight gag that recalls the looming “Peace is Our Profession” billboard that overlooks the air force base in Dr. Strangelove. Inside the makeshift prison, guards hang a Confederate flag, a symbol of the opposite of American patriotism, of hate and spite. Why the director still cannot use a tripod at any time remains a mystery, but his visceral style has few peers, if any. Only shots of crying children and a needless montage of scanning newspaper articles stick out as sore thumbs in Greengrass’ superb visual presentation of the film’s confrontational politics.

Those politics are so fearlessly spoken, however, that I found my more reserved initial reaction to the film has softened. The Hurt Locker had its political messages, yes, but they were so subtly combined into its character drama that discussions of its politics have only just begun in earnest after numerous appraisers mistook it for an apolitical war movie. Though made long before Bigelow’s film hit theaters and garnered its reaction, Green Zone wants to leave no room for misinterpretation. The Iraq War was a mistake, no, it was a premeditated crime that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and thousands of Americans, destroyed our national credibility and ruined the world economy.

If Green Zone at times loses track of its otherwise taut structure to air its grievances, that is only because there are too many grievances to list. The film wisely implicates journalists for their complicity in the war, for being so enthused about receiving information from the government that would drive up readership that they never bothered to vet the intelligence. That’s right, the so-called liberal mainstream media are as responsible as the politicians who capitalized on panic, and Greengrass drives home the point when Freddy appears at the end of a climactic confrontation to throw a curveball before flatly telling Miller, the liberal do-good soldier who wants to expose the truth in order to help Iraq, “It is not up to you to determine what happens in this country.” Is it any wonder, then, that the most outrageous and sickening moment of the film is the airing of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech?


  1. "Like Bigelow, Greengrass has the ability to give each brief shot just enough duration to give the audience some semblance of spatial relations while jumping around to maintain a sense of disorientation."

    No. I haven't seen The Green Zone, and frankly I'm not going to see The Green Zone, but there is no sense of spatial relations in Greengrass' work. The Hurt Locker was artistic legitimization of the kind of handheld shakycam aesthetics I'm ordinarily very wary of, and I'll be the first to admit it, but Greengrass just presents images. He has no understanding of the relationship between them. If anything, the length of a shot in a Greengrass film is more important than the shot itself, and if his films are successful (and I don't think they are) it's because of their reliance upon rhythm, and how it presides over and interacts with the general visual incomprehensibility of the images.

    And judging by your descriptions, Greengrass seems to just be manipulating liberal moral indignation in a way that is anything but new (he did it in his Bourne movies as well). It allows us to identify with an American soldier while simultaneously having him expose the fraud that led to war, pandering both to support our troops and anti-war sentiments.

  2. The film has definitely sparked a lot of interesting discussion. What troubled me - and a lot of other people more than me - is that the story takes such liberties with the facts. There's a great discussion about this on the blog Cinema Viewfinder:

    Ultimately this is self-defeating on Greengrass' part because it allows his message to be dismissed as mere propaganda - exaggeration for effect, which is basically what the Bush administration did leading up to the war.

    As for his aesthetic, it worked much better for me than it usually does - I think because he pulled back a little bit and let us see what was going on. While I enjoy a good mise en scene as much as the next guy, I'm not troubled by a focus on montage in an action movie, where rhythm seems more important to me than spacial relations. But Greengrass went so far with it that I didn't get much of a rhythm from him - just a lot of blurry, shaky shots in succession. Here, for whatever reason, it seems to play better.

    My own review is here:

  3. Doniphon and MovieMan: The one aspect of the film that really irked me was its thriller structure. I've been able to slip into the rhythm of his editing, and I've also been able to follow the action because I really do think he uses enough establishing shots, fast as they are, to at least tell me where the hell I am, which I couldn't say about Cloverfield (and that film had much longer takes). But that pacing is meant for action movies, and Greengrass always seems to be working under the misapprehension that he's making these shocking thrillers when he just makes action movies. That is perfectly well and good, and it's a shame that his movies (this and the Bourne series specifically) place so much importance on weak reveals that in the case of Bourne (his real name) and this (the truth of WMD) are already known to the audience. I also didn't care for the faux-upbeat ending, but I suppose it was too much to ask that Greengrass be so political AND end on an appropriately dark note.

  4. I'm not going to go on for paragraphs about this movie. I think it was surprisingly good. I actually hadn't read up on the movie first and expected something Bourne-ish--so I was surprised by the political message. Yeah, yeah, it's old news.. blah-de-blah. There were some excellent moments in there. AND I walked out of the theatre feeling like the nine dollar movie ticket was actually worth it; which these days, is a rare, rare occurence.

  5. I liked the first half of this movie the best. It clearly shows the Bush administration's crime against the young soldiers who were sent charging into harm,s way to find what the politicians knew wasn't there - as when Miller and his men check out a supposed WMD site while a sniper threatens. The first half also shows how the whole occupation of Iraq was a mismanaged mess from the beginning. Great review here.

  6. I’m beginning to think Greengrass is rather overrated. He has technical flair but Green Zone lacks character or depth. The story is based on something everybody knows already so it isn’t like some big expose or anything, and with the likes of The Hurt Locker and other much better films about Iraq out there (Three Kings), Green Zone is destined to sink quietly into the background.

    The final shot of the oil refinery highlights its rather superficial convictions. Good review.