The first and best compliment that I can pay Green Zone is that right after I left the screening, I tracked down the source book, Imperial Life In The Emerald City – which wasn’t particularly easy to do after midnight. Naturally, the movie, which was directed by Paul Greengrass, is much more bombastic and action-packed than the book, which was written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The movie also isn’t perfect (how many movies are?), but it’s damn good.
Green Zone is a dramatization drawn from real events – the book was a work of non-fiction that served as the inspiration for the story told on screen. Paul Greengrass is a born rabble-rouser, but one with true class, depth, and visual dexterity. He was at the helm on the latter two Bourne movies – the ones that were twice as frantic as the already frantic original – and he also mounted the very overlooked but profound United 93, a recreation of the events of the morning of September 11th, 2001. Paul Greengrass is a filmmaker uncommonly concerned with the modern world, and obviously he is a filmmaker unafraid to confront sensitive and even unpopular cinematic subjects. The Iraq War has proved to be a remarkably unpopular cinematic subject, so at a reported budget of $100 million, Green Zone was a big risk, and, time has told, a sizable flop. Doesn’t mean it ain’t worth seeing, and you can still get out there to do it. Let me work on the convincing part:
Besides the prodigious talent of Paul Greengrass, Green Zone boasts a script by the awesome Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Man On Fire) and cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, who deserved the Oscar for The Hurt Locker (another solid Iraq movie which, Best Picture win aside, underwhelmed at the box office.) The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Brendan Gleeson, doing his ragged lurching good-guy-in-a-brutal-world thing as a CIA operative with integrity; Amy Ryan, doing her sweetness-caught-between-bullying-agendas thing as a journalist trying to get a good story; and Greg Kinnear, doing his naughty-white-man-you-probably-can’t-trust thing as a bureaucrat holding to the company line no matter the cost. The set design is impeccable, subbing Spain and Morocco for the Middle East and never less than convincing at it. The score is by John Powell, who’s the guy you get when you can’t get Hans Zimmer. John Powell is an effective action composer. His Green Zone score would be cool in any other action movie – it’s thunderous and dramatic and unrelenting. It’d be great on your iPod at the gym, but I’m not sure it fits this movie perfectly. It feels like a concession to accessibility, honestly.
Otherwise, Paul Greengrass’ direction pulls no punches, and if some of them land a little heavy, it sure is impressive to watch him swing. The politics of this film are very much on its sleeve, which sympathize or don’t, is some kind of achievement for a $100 million Hollywood movie, and the imagery and camerawork is even more aggressive. Greengrass is the guy who took the hand-held, guerilla-style camera look from TV shows like The Shield and applied it most effectively to feature films, most notably in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. The frenetic, kinetic camerawork of Green Zone feels like it goes a step even further in that direction – and without a more mainstream Bourne type of story to complement it, the camerawork makes a challenging story feel more complicated than it might otherwise. I’ll be honest; there were points during Green Zone where this frustrated me, but with some hindsight, I’ve decided that it’s a bold storytelling choice.
Green Zone, from the story to the setting to the very way it’s filmed, demands your attention. It forces you to follow the story and its various players and agendas, and if those all sometimes move faster than the audience and the movie’s protagonist can follow… well, that makes sense. The situation in Iraq, for lack of a single better term, is a clusterfuck of historical proportions. You don’t have to subscribe to any political point of view to see that: It’s just the reality we’re all dealing with. Green Zone is asking moral questions. It’s asking questions of accountability. Its point, to paraphrase the movie’s main character, is that the reasons for war always matter. Were the reasons behind this war truly justifiable, considering the cost? It’s an unpopular question to ask, here in the spring of 2010.
Let’s talk about that main character for a moment though: Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, played by Matt Damon. Matt Damon has become the perfect muse for Greengrass’ brand of filmmaking. Damon has become the go-to guy for portraying unsentimental decency and unrelenting competence onscreen. He has an air of morality and trustworthiness that makes him easy to follow, no matter how quickly he’s moving. Watching Green Zone, I thought more than once that in some alternate universe, Matt Damon could’ve helped Marvel solve their Captain America casting issue fairly easily. Personally though, I prefer seeing Damon get it done in movies like Green Zone. His character’s questions are America’s questions; his character asks questions that need answering, even if people aren’t as interested in asking them as we used to be and still should be. When we meet Miller at the beginning of the movie, he’s led his men on yet another dangerous mission that has yielded none of the reported weapons of mass destruction. Miller is a good soldier, but he’s grown tired of risking the lives of the men under his command for shoddy intelligence. He’s no longer willing to lead American soldiers into harm’s way without the proper information. He demands to know where the bad intelligence is coming from, and why. Again, Matt Damon is the perfect audience surrogate for a film like this, and it’s still a question worth asking, even though we now know that the bad intelligence came from the top, and it was flawed to say the least.
Green Zone’s problem, the reason why hardly anybody went to see it, isn’t a problem with what it is as a movie. It’s a problem of zeitgeist, of audience interest and engagement. It goes beyond politics, because everyone nowadays seems to be disinterested in what Green Zone is trying to address. The people on the right side don’t like it when anyone raises the viable question of why warmongers sent American soldiers into a desert full of religious extremists to fight and die without impeccable intelligence, and the people on the left side are so exhausted with the subject and so unwilling to press the issue that they want to leave the past in the past. My only point, since even now under a new regime the war continues, is that – as the movie posits – the reasons still matter. They always matter. As long as American soldiers are in harm’s way, the reasons will matter. History, even recent history, should always be considered, because the old adage is true and in this case it actually happened: If we don’t ask why, and keep the question close at hand, we’re doomed to repeat our history. I believe that this is what Paul Greengrass is trying to say with this movie, and it’s too bad that no one was listening.