not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Because this website is going to act as a comprehensive repository of all my internet writing, I’m transferring over my old work from previous blogs. This was initially published on 23 March 2010.
After the credits had rolled on Green Zone, I left the theater feeling that Paul Greengrass had chosen this project for two reasons: it reflects a political stance that he agrees with, and it gave him an opportunity to create the best action sequence he’s achieved in a career filled with memorable action sequences, as American intelligence agencies with opposite goals race through uncontrolled Baghdad to secure an Iraqi general in what could perhaps be called a cat, cat, and mouse game. The action unfolds over the film’s final thirty minutes with palpable tension, brutal logic, and destruction that’s at once beautiful and horrifying, only to be solved at the end with the surprise appearance of someone who could not be there if the script didn’t require someone to deliver a moral. Which exemplifies the overall problem with Green Zone: the hamfisted message movie keeps getting in the way of the terrific political thriller.
When the aforementioned character appears at the chase’s end, all but airlifted in with a helicopter labeled “Deus Ex Machina,” or perhaps “Labored Overarching Metaphor,” it doesn’t entirely negate the visceral thrills offered up to that point. That doesn’t happen until the movie’s final scene, a cloying and insulting attempt to give an uplifting ending to a movie that ostensibly sets out to show why the Iraq War doesn’t have a happy ending. When I realized the movie was over, I thought, “that’s all?”
Of course, Greengrass has been guilty of similarly abrupt endings in the past, most notably in The Bourne Supremacy. The instincts that make his movies so gripping from minute to minute- the street-level view, an obsessive eye for the minutiae involved in getting from point A to point B- tend to make the movies as a whole feel truncated and pointless. Yes, it’s interesting to see exactly how U.S. armed forces storm an enemy complex, but do we really care who the people inside are, or whether they get captured? Greengrass’s most successful films are the ones where the actions of the people involved are the whole point: United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the last two Bourne movies all consider people put into situations where they must fight for survival, and show how they go about it. He could make a great adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
But Green Zone considers messier situations and stickier questions than fight-or-die, and the movie fails to properly grapple with them. The film does an effective job of investigating the hunt for WMDs in a way the audience can understand, but its heroes are too good and correct in their predictions, its villains too evil and wrong, for us to see this as anything more than an Important Message movie, emptier in its own way than a pure technical exercise like The Bourne Supremacy.Green Zone invites comparison with The Hurt Locker, and while the two films both possess beautiful visuals (Barry Ackroyd served as cinematographer for both films), Green Zone looks like an embarrassingly clear-cut portrait of an ambiguous war.
The characters suffer as well: Matt Damon plays his character like a straight arrow, making it weird when he decides to do things that Jeremy Renner’s loose-cannon bomb expert from The Hurt Locker would probably decide are too risky. Damon seems to have gotten used to playing a blank slate under Greengrass’s direction. Too bad this story calls for an actual character. Greg Kinnear does a better job as the villain, a Bush Administration bureaucrat determined to make the war as PR-friendly as possible, even as it costs American lives, but the screenplay fails to provide him with any sort of motive as well. This comes across in the film as an error of inductive reasoning on writer Brian Helgeland’s part, who seems to reason that because something this evil happened, it had to have an equally evil perpetrator behind it.
Despite all this, Green Zone is an eminently watchable and entertaining movie. If I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listing its faults, it’s because the good parts are so good that it makes the bad parts that much more frustrating.