Lost in the Movies: Now Playing: Green Zone

Now Playing: Green Zone

I was in a shopping mall when the first bombs dropped on Baghdad. It was spring break, 2003, and I was vacationing with my family in Florida, taking a breather from an unsatisfying freshman year of college and the incessant march to war that had accompanied it. Always a history buff, I was both fascinated and repelled by what was happening - the notion of invasion never made sense to me and Bush's justifications appeared half-baked at best, yet it was with a sense of relief that the inevitable drumbeat reached its crescendo (if it's going to happen, happen already!). And of course it was a bit overwhelming to experience such a historic moment, and to feel so frustratingly sidelined. That evening, in fact, sitting down for dinner at a plastic restaurant in the middle of touristy mega-plaza, I quizzed my parents about their own brushes with history: where had they been when JFK was killed? When a man walked on the moon?

I think we were onto the fall of the Berlin Wall when our waitress approached and let us know that they had just started bombing Iraq - earlier than expected, since Bush's 48-hour warning to Saddam had only passed a few hours ago, and the bombing had not been expected till tomorrow morning. The young woman also mentioned her twin sister, stationed in Kuwait at that very moment, awaiting the ground invasion. She kept her cool, but looked shaken. That night we huddled around the TV set in the hotel room and watched the eerie orange glow over the ancient city, and I remember feeling irked that, when we flipped the channels, normal programming was on some of the cable networks. The next morning, vacationers splashed and swam in the swimming pool but an uneasy sense of irreality hung in the air. In the lobby of the resort, families - I particularly remember the old men in Hawaiin shirts - gathered around the TV as a Rumsfeld press conference unfolded.

There we were, surrounded by palm trees and the heat, half a world away from the action. It was an unforgettable sensation. Why do I mention all of this, particularly when I try to avoid these autobiographical, anecdotal asides in my pieces? Because Green Zone re-awakened the feelings of that moment: the odd mixture of pride, frustration, confusion, and helplessness that accompanied the most ambitious and dramatic start of an American war since World War II. I saw the film the other night in a crowded multiplex (though the lines forming through the lobby were for the 3-D Alice in Wonderland) and before the movie we were deluged by Avatar advertisements for Coca-Cola and embarrassing promos for Kirstie Alley's self-humiliating new reality show (during which I put my head down and tried to read a book I'd brought along). The audience chatted and chuckled ironically at the self-aggrandizing trash flaunted across the screen, but they fell silent when the screen went to black. The mood was quiet, intent - suddenly we all seemed to be in the same boat again, riding stormy seas, this time headed into the maelstrom instead of huddling on the horizon, trying to squint and glimpse at what was going on inside.

Green Zone is, of course, "just" a movie. A thriller at that, a genre piece. Paul Greengrass has directed United 93 and Bloody Sunday, as well as two of the Bourne films, but Green Zone is closer to the latter than the former in its simultaneously cluttered yet streamlined storytelling, its emphasis on action over tension, its simplification of messy reality into a single narrative. The movie opens with Shock and Awe, and then cuts to Chief Warrant Officer Miller (Matt Damon), whose mission is to find WMDs - so far every operation has turned up, as he puts it, a big "doughnut." Confronting the brass and a slimy government official (Greg Kinnear), he finds himself allied with a grizzly CIA agent in an attempt to track down a Ba'athist general and to determine who the source was for the bad intel. Along the way, we get the greatest hits of the Iraq War: the settling of the titular operations base (there are carefree tourists at this swimming pool too, ironically), the "Mission Accomplished" speech, the press conference announcing the disbanding of the Iraq Army, glimpses of prisoner abuse, night-vision hunts through Baghdad alleyways, the marginalization of the CIA, the ascent of Department of Defense, the compromises of a journalist hungry for inside information.

It's rather startling - and impressive - how Greengrass is able to stuff so much of the early occupation into a single film, one shaped no less like a clear-cut action movie. And it's disconcerting when he takes complete leaps into fiction (spoilers ahead). Why make the Defense lackey a complete fabulist and a killer to boot - isn't the truth, that the government filtered out what it didn't want to hear from the intel, bad enough? (Maybe it's not "dramatic" enough which points to tensions between the film's attempt to comment and its attempt to entertain.) Meanwhile, the movie treats war-torn Baghdad as a zone of complete mobility, in which officers, agents, and Iraqis zip around the smoking metropolis with the ease of, well, characters in a Bourne film. There's no chain of command in evidence, and at times the war seems to be reduced to a mano e mano between Miller and whomever he's confronting at the moment. The film's conclusion takes an Inglourious Basterds cudgel to reality, making Miller a WMD whistleblower and exposing a conspiracy with historical consequences, yet one which never actually happened.

At the same time, much of the film - however compressed and streamlined - does correspond to the facts as we know them: the ill-advised dissolution of Iraqi military, the behind-the-scenes bickering between Defense Department and other government agencies,  the poor information on WMDs, the neocon push for instant democracy and early triumph, at the expense of long-term security or cautious strategy. (Interestingly, and commendably, Greengrass does not suggest greed or even power as the operating motive here, but ideology - this comports with my own take on what unfolded.) For those who can't abide a film like JFK, the film will probably still be too far from the truth, but like that film it represents a myth of American history, something I welcome as a cultural-aesthetic enterprise even when I disagree - and this film hews much closer to the broad contours of what happened than Stone's picture.

Yet the thriller mechanics and the drive to capture history don't quite gel. On the one hand, the film is very effective as entertainment: gripping, forward-driving, surprisingly easy to follow given the convoluted plot. Greengrass' legendary aesthetic (as influential and expressive of 00s tropes as - on the opposite end of the spectrum - Wes Anderson's candy-colored nostalgia) is on full display here. In the past I've found his shaky handheld, fast-cut, close-up style to be distracting and, ironically, distancing. It works well in Green Zone; I think it's because he steps back a bit from the action, even as the frame shudders and the angles cut in time to the staccato machine gun fire. The lenses during the final chase scene appear to be wider than those he used in Bourne; hence, we don't get blurred noses and chins in chopped-up fights, but full figures racing through recognizable environments, the colors a blur, yet the overall sense of motion through space clear enough.

Effective as a genre piece, compelling as an exercise in cultural myth-making, Green Zone is nonetheless difficult to digest. Already, it's been decried as anti-American propaganda, while others have celebrated the way its message resonates with them; a few protest in vain that it should be judged as entertainment. When it ended, I was left with the suspicion that, with more distance from the events onscreen I could have enjoyed it primarily as creative work without continually falling back on the historical record and my own memories. The film might have been easier to take then - but I welcome this confusion. Indeed, 2009-10 feels like the end of a cinematic and cultural hibernation. As I wrote at the end of the Bush administration:
"But we have to look elsewhere for a coherent statement on post-9/11, intra-Iraq America. Since this is a movie blog, we might as well look in the annals of cinema, right? Fat chance! If other realms provided disappointments when it came to representing the zeitgeist, the film industry proved itself a disgrace. Not only was it unable to produce more than a handful of major fictional works which even tangentially grappled with the era, it couldn't even come up with many major works to begin with. Comic-book adaptations, endless sequels, turgid remakes - these provided the lifeblood of the most unimaginative decade in Hollywood's history."
This analysis was a bit harsh; in retrospect there were films which bit into, or at least nibbled on, the zeitgeist. But by and large it was a cinema - and a culture at large - of inertia and myopia. Yet last year, movies broke out of their shell and connected again, in terms of both content and/or fluidity and expressiveness of the filmmaking. (On the latter note, arresting and largely non-"relevant" films like Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds, even Where the Wild Things Are seemed somehow more liberated than even the better works of the previous five years, for reasons - if any - hard to pinpoint). In the immediate wake of Hurt Locker's Oscar victory, Green Zone confirms this trend, and I'm thankful for that. Agree with it or disagree with it, the movie has found just enough distance to convey its insights and reactions with clarity. That doesn't mean it's easy to take or "respond" to, just that the sense of relevance and expressiveness is a head-spinning relief. I'd continue to welcome any films which grapple with our times or our mood (to do the latter, no specific topics need to be broached), whether current or recent, conservative or liberal, mythmaking or realistic, or both. On the surface, sitting in a multiplex is not much different than roaming around a shopping mall, but when the lights dim and the screen is illuminated, anything can happen. It's not an end, but it's a start.

For an incisive and far less ambivalent takedown of the film, please visit Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


Hokahey said...

MovieMan - This is an excellent, touching treatment of a rather difficult film to respond to. I found it entertaining - and I enjoy how Greengrass has turned Damon into a very believable, very capable hero. But at the same time it's taking on a whole bunch of issues and churning them up in a 112-minute action movie.

I think the first half of the film is more successful than the latter half - which pretty much slides into thriller mode. In the first half, when the soldiers risk their lives looking for WMDs while a sniper threatens, I found that old anger at the Bush administration coming back. That's one of the big crimes here - that by ignoring the truth, young Americans were put at risk and are still at risk, and that message comes through here quite effectively.

MovieMan0283 said...

I felt similarly - that the early segments of the film were stronger in stoking those old feelings, not just of anger, but also the confusion and excitement that accompanied the whole venture - it put me back into the overwhelmed mindset of 2003. By the end, the thriller mechanics do take over and politically, I think Greengrass just made things to extreme. (spoilers) Turning the Kinnear character into a bald-faced liar and a murderer isn't necessary; the truth is bad enough, and this just opens the film up to conservative attacks that it's propaganda. Also, the extremity of the conclusion - that Damon exposes all the corruption right away, CC'ing every media outlet (and the fact that's there's not just corruption but a conspiracy neatly-tied with a little bow) just seemed to veer too far into Inglourious Basterds territory. Still, I welcome the picture with all its flaws and complexities. Among other reasons, I'm always fascinated when filmmakers try to fashion a myth - something I have to defend the cinema against from both left and right, on occasion.

MovieMan0283 said...

By "myth" I don't necessarily mean a falsehood (so sometimes such films contain them - the more and more they do, the more troublesome; not saying I wouldn't criticize them at all here) but rather a package which tries to include everything and streamline it into an easily digestible narrative.

J.D. said...

I quite enjoyed your personal take on this film. It's another one I'm on the fence about but because I like the Damon/Greengrass combo so much I am more inclined to give this one a go. In some respects, it almost seems a little like a simplified version of SYRIANA, which I felt dealt with similar subject matter in a much more complex way.

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, you make some great points. Since I brought up JFK myself, I should probably be the one to note a crucial point about that movie - it never explicitly shows us with the world of the film who killed JFK. Stone obviously sympathizes with Garrison's crusade, and probably believes a number of his points, but even as a "counter-myth" that film is cautious. What we "see" is shown over voiceover, and it's never clear whether they are flashbacks, fantasies, fabrications...they remain dangling "what-ifs".

Grengrass on the other hand explicitly reshapes reality. When he does this for streamlining purposes, as long as hews to the broader truth, I don't mind. I don't care if this one particular individual really did this or that if this or that really happened. But by the end we are in la-la land which is a pity since much of the film, by following what happened, makes an effective case against the Bush administration.

The Kinnear character confused me - I initially thought he was supposed to be Bremer, but then they mention Bremer's name at the end. Yet he seems to be calling all the shots. If they were going to create a villain out of whole-cloth who was culpable for WMD lies, he should've been lower-ranking and not confusable with any real figures. That was another weird thing about the movie, how journalists, Iraqi civilians, soldiers, CIA agents, and officers all rubbed shoulders with no concern for rank or separate duties.

Here's a weird analogy but I think it works: it was like one of the medeival paintings where they flatten the landscape, simplify features and dress all the ancient figures in then-contemporary clothing. Greengrass compressed this sprawling story into a streamlined narrative and while I find this aesthetically satisfying it's bound to wreak havoc on the truth, the storytelling, or both. Even with that consideration, however, he didn't need to go as far as he did in revisionism.

I'm heading over right now to check out your post.

MovieMan0283 said...

J.D., an interesting comparsion. Syriana is a great example of a film which utilizes current events but crafts its own fictional story so that nobody could really be confused about its factual qualities. One could criticize it for the way it characterizes certain events or issues, but as art, not reportage.

Greengrass just includes way too many details that have exact correspondences in Iraq. He duplicates things that happened and then inserts fictions inside them. The effect is surreal, fascinating, and very bad historiography.

MovieMan0283 said...

(Updated 6/2: Here are comments which were left on the Sun's Not Yellow link-post, which has now been deleted:)

Sam Juliano said...

Nice to read this summation of your theatrical experience Joel, and of some vital historical relevence here, so to speak, as I am leaving my home is about 15 minutes to see the film at our local Edgewater multiplex. The critics are divided, though I see Ebert, the NY Times Scott, Zahareck and the Village Voice's Hoberman are among the yay sayers. I am trying to cull a summary judgement from this review, but I am assuming it's mostly favorable in view of this:

"There we were, surrounded by palm trees and the heat, half a world away from the action. It was an unforgettable sensation. Why do I mention all of this, particularly when I try to avoid these autobiographical, anecdotal asides in my pieces? Because Green Zone re-awakened the feelings of that moment: the odd mixture of pride, frustration, confusion, and helplessness that accompanied the most ambitious and dramatic start of an American war since World War II."
March 15, 2010 8:51 PM
MovieMan0283 said...

Mixed - you'll see. I'll be interested to hear your reaction.
March 16, 2010 12:54 AM
Sam Juliano said...

To be honest I disliked it intensely.
March 16, 2010 9:49 AM
MovieMan0283 said...

You're not the only one - check out Tony Dayoub's great put-down, which is linked at the bottom of my review.
March 16, 2010 10:24 AM
Hokahey said...

This is a touching approach to your review here. Yes, the images of the bombing of Iraq brought back a visceral time. I liked the first half of this film better than the latter half - which became standard thriller and not up to standard Greengrass quality. The first half really pointed out the crime of sending young American soldiers into harm's way on false pretenses. I also like how Greengrass has turned Matt Damon into a believable action-movie hero.
March 17, 2010 11:12 AM
MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Hokahey. Particularly since many more recent Iraq films have focused on the gruelling occupation of the country, it's a surprise to be taken back into the earlier, more disorienting days of the war...
March 17, 2010 11:22 AM

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