Green Zone

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Though tempting, it would be unfair to subtitle Paul Greengrass' new political melodrama, "Green Zone," as "Bourne in Iraq," even if in many ways it is. Reteaming with the gifted and versatile actor Matt Damon, who had played in all the films of the "Bourne" franchise (two of which directed by him, "The Bourne Supremacy," "The Bourne Ultimatum"), director Greengrass employs the same narrative and visual approaches, which he had introduced in "Black Sunday" and has used in all of his movies. As exciting to watch as they are, these strategies are getting a little bit too familiar (more about it later) and Greengrass risks charges of repetition, rather than praise for refinement.

 
It is therefore with great regret that I have to declare "Green Zone" a disappointment, both politically and artistically. In fact, it is Greengrass' weakest picture in a decade, particularly when placed against such great political films as "Black Sunday" and "United 93."
 
Meant to be an edge-of-the-seat political thriller about an urgent social issue, "Green Zone," nonetheless, would be quite predictable for any formed citizen who's been following the news of the recent American wars. "Green Zone" represents a feature that's "too little, too late," a populist paranoia film in the mode of Oliver Stone's work, that, in order to resonate and have real impact, should have been made at least five years ago.
 
Indeed, one of the problems with making films that are so grounded in the immediate political reality is that they tend to get outdated (and fade in memory) as soon as that particular reality changes. Fort me, there was not a single new idea in "Green Zone," a 1970s-kind of cinematic tale of how the Bush administration was fooled and then in turn fooled the American public regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, presumably the direct cause for the war back in March 2003. 
 
I think it might have been better to wait for another half a decade or so to revisit the issue of WMD with a fresher perspective and perhaps even different cinematic strategies. The commercial appeal of "Green Zone" will largely depend on the star power of Matt Damon, who, despite considerable skill and charisma, has been unable to pull the masses into his serious, dramatic features, such as Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" or Soderbergh's satirical "The Informant," both of which had mediocre box-office grosses (slightly over $30 million).   New movie is not as entertaining, as one of the "Bourne" segments, and it's important to remember that Greengrass' "United 93" was artistically acclaimed but box-office failure.  
 
"Green Zone" suffers from other problems. Though adopting an ultra-realistic style, occasionally, the narrative strains credibility, particularly in sequences in which Matt Damon's character seems to be moving freely in a highly dangerous zone. One sequence in prison, and two other exterior scenes, including the climactic shoot out, raised my eyebrows.
 
Moreover, inevitable comparisons will be made with Kathryn Bigelow's superlative "The Hurt Locker," and not just because the same brilliant cinematographer, Oscar-nominee Barry Ackroyd, had shot both films. Many sequences in "Green Zone" bear physical resemblance to "Hurt Locker," though to be fair, it was Greengrass who had first employed Ackroyd, back then when he was known for his work for Brit director Ken Loach.
 
The scenario, penned by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland (Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential," in 1997, Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" in 2003) from former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s best-selling nonfiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: InsideIraq’s Green Zone” (which I have not read), is a little too simplistic in its explanations, too well-rounded in terms of heroes and villains, and ultimately too symmetrical for its own good.  Quite expectedly, Helgeland imbues the film with elements of film noir, which must be his favorite genre.
 
Even so, the text poses an intriguing question: How long and at what price will one patriotic soldier go in order to uncover a conspiracy that extends throughout an unstable country like Iraq, eventually erupting into a nasty, endless war, defined by both internal and external enemies. You could say that "Green Zone" embraces too naively the mythology of the individual hero, the David Vs. Goliath tale of a lone warrior who feels he has one and only option, go off reservation to find the hidden truth.  All of which happens in the first act, which is also disappointing, due to the fact that we viewers already know what Damon is about to find out, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. 
 
Committed to making a high-stakes thriller with all the authentic details of a war zone, Greengrass told me in an interview, "This is not a movie about the war in Iraq, it’s a thriller set in Iraq, and that’s a very different proposition. Thrillers are at their best when they’re in extreme environments, where the moral challenges are acute." Fair and true.  But these honorable conviction and serious intent don't necessarily make "Green Zone" a better, timely, or compelling picture.
 
When we first meet U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, it is 2003 and early on in the war. Miller and his team of inspectors are dispatched by their commanders to find weapons stockpiled in the Iraqi desert.  In the first reel, rocketing from one booby-trapped and treacherous site to the next, the men desperately search for deadly chemical agents but are unable to find any evidence; one shabbily destroyed site turns out to be an old toilet factory.
 
Gradually, Miller, functioning as a hero in a Greek tragedy seeking the light, stumbles upon an elaborate cover-up that involves numerous players (both military and civilian), which subverts the purpose of his mission.  Spun by operatives with intersecting agendas, Miller begins to hunt through covert and faulty and hidden intelligence for crucial answers, which might either clear a rogue regime or escalate a war in a vastly unstable region.  Operating at a blistering time and combustible place, Miller realizes that the most elusive and dangerous weapon is valid, factual data.
 
Predictably, most of the saga's secondary players turn out to be unreliable and/or unsympathetic, especially Greg Kinnear, as the smooth and manipulative Defense Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone, who, among many strategic tasks, is a mediator-liaison among the various functions and also "handles" the press.
 
Slightly more interesting is Brendan Gleeson's CIA station chief Martin Brown, as an initially stubborn man who's ultimately willing to listen up and revise his preconceptions. The estimable Amy Ryan is cast as Wall Street Journal journalist Lawrie Dayne, and, as such, gives a bad name to any working investigative reporter.  For a while, it seems that Lawrie has her own agenda and that she has struck a "deal" with the devil.  But it turns out that she is simply not very bright and not very good at her job.  Either way, "Green Zone" is yet another American movie that's critical of the easily manipulated press, which all too willingly believes in and sells to the public the official line.
 
The film's most interesting interactions are those between Miller and Freddie (Kallid Abdalla, who was also in United 93) a patriotic Iraqi civilian who claims to care about the future of his country.  A casualty of the war (he wears a prosthesis), Freddie becomes Miller’s translator and informant. It's to the credit of the filmmaker that that they build enough suspense and tension around Freddie, to the point where we are not sure how reliable a source and how trustworthy he is.
 
In a small part, British actor Jason Isaacs registers strongly as Special Forces operative Lt. Col. Briggs, who could destroy both Miller’s mission and the warrant officer himself. At one point, after refusing to cooperate with Miller, the duo actually engages in a fistfight.
 
The film is produced by the estimable company Working Title, headed by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (who also did the Coen brother's wonderful Jewish fable, "A Serious Man" and Greengrass' "United 93").
 
As noted, the fast-paced film is technically accomplished, marked by Greengrass' familiar style. For "Green Zone, the helmer has reunited a stellar behind-the-scenes crew from his previous projects.  In addition to the gifted Barry Ackroyd, the team includes production designer Dominic Watkins, Oscar-winning editor Christopher Rouse, composer John Powell Powell, and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang.
 
End Note
 
One of the few political filmmakers around, Greengrass began his career covering global conflict for Britain’s ITV. During that 10-year span, he traveled to war-torn countries and reported powerful stories. After shifting his focus to fictional dramatic fare, he created a series of films that explored timely social events. Blending the rigorous discipline of a documentarian with the acute sense of structure and plot of a dramatic filmmaker, he has succeeded in heightening the impact of his projects—up until "Green Zone."
 
Journalist-author Chandrasekaran, who reported first hand from Baghdad on the weapons-inspection process, won the Overseas Press Club book award, the Ron Ridenhour Prize, Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, and other kudos.
 
Cast
Roy Miller – Matt Damon
Clark Poundstone – Greg Kinnear
Martin Brown – Brendan Gleeson
Lawrie Dayne – Amy Ryan
Freddy – Khalid Abdalla
Briggs – Jason Isaacs

Credits
A Universal release presented in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media of a Working Title production.
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass.
Executive producers, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin.
Co-producers, Mairi Bett, Michael Bronner, Christopher Rouse, Kate Solomon.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Screenplay, Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Camera (color, widescreen), Barry Ackroyd.
Editor, Christopher Rouse.
Music, John Powell.
Production designer, Dominic Watkins.
Art directors, Mark Bartholomew (U.K.), Mark Swain (Spain), Frederic Evard (Morocco); set decorator, Lee Sandales.
Costume designer, Sammy Sheldon.
Sound, Simon Hayes; supervising sound editor, Oliver Tarner; re-recording mixers, Michael Prestwood Smith, Mark Taylor.
Visual effects supervisor, Peter Chiang; digital visual effects, Double Negative; special effects supervisor, Joss Williams.
Stunt coordinators, Markos Rounthwaite, Gary Connery (U.K.).
Assistant director, Chris Carreras; second unit directors, Chris Forster, Dan Bradley; second unit camera, Florian Emmerich; additional editor, Mark Fitzgerald.
Casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, Dan Hubbard, John Hubbard.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 114 Minutes

Reviewed March 8, 2010.