Sunday, March 14, 2010


For the second week in a row I found myself watching a highly-anticipated big-budget film from a director I quite like and, also for the second week in a row, I found myself enjoying the movie in theory, and in parts, but never as a whole experience. The films couldn't be more different, but I had more or less the same experience with Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone that I did with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. In each case, after the film ended I kept turning it over and over in my head. All the pieces were there for a good movie and, indeed, I found myself entertained from time to time, and yet I still left the theater with the dull ache of disappointment and ambivalence.

Maybe it’s because Green Zone wants to have its cake and eat it too. It’s an Iraq War movie based on real events immediately following the invasion in 2003, documented in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's great book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, yet it’s perched on the border between docudrama and actioner. In theory, it’s the perfect mix between two of Greengrass’s best films to date – the slam-bang wall-to-wall thrills of The Bourne Ultimatum and the gritty fly-on-the-wall history of United 93 – brought together with the commonality of the frenzied intensified continuity of his shaky-cam style. And yet it turns out that it’s just as unhelpful to burden a docudrama with pumped-up action beats as it is to make a straightforward action flick barrel through large swaths of exposition and context. It’s a volatile mix.

The film centers on a tough and loyal soldier played by Matt Damon. He’s a smart, perceptive, quick-thinking man of action, but he asks more questions than would make his superiors comfortable, questions like “Why is the intelligence wrong?” and “Where are the WMDs?” He’s obviously a composite character, a necessary compression of the facts in order for the film to be a traditional action-thriller with one central hero we can track throughout. This would be more agreeable if Damon had more of a character to play. The characterization is thin, very thin. He’s a type, not a person. The same goes for the uniformly impressive supporting cast from Brendan Gleeson as a crusty, infallible CIA agent, to Amy Ryan as a duped reporter whose articles helped in the lead up to war, to Greg Kinnear as a slimy stooge of the Bush administration, to Igal Naor as an Iraqi general. No matter how good these actors are at fleshing in small bits of character with very little help from Brian Helgevand’s screenplay, and they are fairly good, it still plays thinly on screen.

But you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how far a film can get on pure outrage alone. The film taps into a deep vein of dissatisfaction and discouragement about this current conflict. It feels a little too late for such a powerful statement though, and cutting corners on the facts does the heavy-handed message no favors even if you, like me, agree with the sentiment of what’s being presented. What would have felt radical a few years ago now feels much more commonly accepted. Just three years ago, the excellent documentary No End in Sight did a great job of swiftly, clearly, methodically, and powerfully laying out the long string of mistakes and the culture of single-minded denial that followed the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, but in that case there was time to focus on that alone. Green Zone, on the other hand, needs to explain a great deal of history and context just to use it as a backdrop for chases, shootouts, and simmering tensions. It can be done, but not here. The film’s not quite up to that task.

Too often, the film plays like what a nightmare Hollywood version of The Hurt Locker would have been, and yet that film was great precisely because it reflected politics, presenting it through personal experiences of its characters and the understandings of the audience. Here, the politics are the experience, and the film can’t figure out the right balance of character and context. Most unfortunately, its message ends up seeming cheapened and convenient, even as the film throws veracity to the wind for a pat, though undeniably thrilling, action-packed climax.

And yet, (this is the kind of film that inspires a lot of “and yet”s) the true story of the WMDs is to this day still so murky and unclear, and there are so many who are still buying what the Bush administration sold on that topic, and no one real villain or sense of closure has yet to arise, the movie’s murky outrage and hazy factuality, and ultimately unsatisfying effect, can be seen as an odd commitment to the way this conflict did, and continues to, play out. Even though I can intellectualize that, it still does nothing to ease my dissatisfaction. For all its impressively mounted action, for all of its excellent actors, for all of its political tension, for all of its politics that I agree with, I still left the theater feeling disappointed.

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