Green Zone reunites Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass from the Jason Bourne sequels, but the complexities of the Iraq occupation prove too much for them.
Unlike my usual Consumables column, this time I'm focusing on just one film. But it's a movie that deserves special consideration, partly because of how disappointing it is.
Green Zone (Universal Pictures)
After The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture, there was a sense in some quarters that its victory signaled the fact that Oscar voters were finally ready to "embrace" the Iraq War as a worthy cinematic subject matter. This line of thinking merely continues a pattern of specious after-the-fact Oscar analysis that happens every year: For example, the voters select Platoon and are therefore finally willing to put Vietnam behind them, but when they didn't pick Brokeback Mountain they indicated they were still uncomfortable with gay love stories, instead choosing Crash because they wanted to send a message about racism. And so on.
But the danger in such a reading of The Hurt Locker's win is that it suggests that future productions that tackle the immensity and moral complexity of our ongoing "War on Terror" (or whatever the Obama administration has renamed it) will be marginalized with the curt dismissal that we've already "covered" that topic. (Equally problematic, it's not as if The Hurt Locker set the box office aflame, which will discourage future exploration of the topic.) Plus, The Hurt Locker is far from a definitive examination of the issues at play -- I wouldn't want the film that might be that one to get lost in the pipeline.
Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon are staring down the barrel of these challenges in their new Iraq thriller Green Zone, and I'd love to say that arguably the best action director alive has licked these problems with the help of one of our most empathetic stars, but instead the film simply magnifies the obstacles in the path of anyone trying to make compelling, intelligent drama out of the most important ongoing American issue.
Based (very loosely, by all accounts) on a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone introduces us to Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), who's stationed in Iraq right after the 2003 U.S. invasion and is growing increasingly frustrated that he can't find the weapons of mass destruction he's been assured by his superiors are there. But despite the interference of an American intelligence agent (Greg Kinnear), Miller begins to learn the truth about what's going on, which leads to predictably high-octane action sequences and some revelations about U.S. foreign policy that will be of absolutely no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the news in the last several years.
When Greengrass (who's best known to audiences for his work on the superb Jason Bourne sequels) made United 93 in 2006, there were charges that it was "too soon" for a movie about the 9/11 attacks. But his calm, clear-eyed view was like a tonic: The film reminded viewers of the horror of that fateful day without sensationalizing the events, instead offering the audience an opportunity to collectively release its accumulated pain, anger and sorrow associated with the attacks.
Still, if United 93 was criticized for being "too soon," Green Zone seems far, far too late. There is certainly room in the Hollywood studio system for a big-budget action movie that criticizes our reasons for invading Iraq -- especially when it comes from a bankable director and star -- but one of the biggest limitations of Green Zone is that it feels content to reward us for what we already know rather than actually make us feel remotely connected to those actions.
Miller is presented as a pretty conscientious soldier from the beginning, so his growing realization about the shady behind-the-scenes dealings that are dramatized in the film (which includes toothlessly indicting The Media in the form of a dull side character played by Amy Ryan) doesn't have much of a sting. Like the American audience watching Green Zone, Miller's just a good guy who means well, but all that does is make his quest for justice self-congratulatory. Miller never feels his own sense of culpability in the agony visited upon Iraq, and so therefore neither do we. And without giving away Green Zone's ending -- which, to be fair to Greengrass, is handled with far more ambiguity and restraint than your typical action movie would allow -- let it be said that there's also nary an acknowledgment that we are still living with the foolishness of our Iraq entanglement. You walk out of the movie happy that the "bad guys" got theirs, but how can that possibly reconcile with what we see on the news today?
Damon has been quite good of late in films as diverse as Invictus and The Informant!, but Miller offers little more than square-jawed heroism without a hint of irony or dimension. (Compare this role to Damon's in the Bourne movies, and it's astounding how less interesting this new portrayal is.) But it's hardly Damon's problem alone -- Kinnear, Ryan, and (as a Middle East expert no one in the U.S. government will listen to) Brendan Gleeson play bland composite characters who represent different immovable forces in the post-invasion debacle. Consequently, Brian Helgeland's screenplay makes it too easy to know from the outset who the boo-hiss villains are -- in one instance, a supporting character helpfully dons I'm-a-jerk facial hair to tip us off to his motives -- and there's very little surprise from there.
Since Green Zone is largely billing itself as an action film, I realize I should at least acknowledge that Greengrass does his usually solid job of visceral filmmaking, although obviously he stays away from the more fantastical sequences that typified his Bourne sequels, preferring to stay in a more realistic mode here. But that approach tends to work against the film -- the herky-jerky camera style and quick cutting remind one of The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy but without the narrative gracefulness that marked those films. So you're left with a thriller that has plenty of jolt but not much genuine invention.
In closing, let me say that if I had to pick a definitive Iraq film, I'd go with the same one I've been saying since it came out in 2007: Charles Ferguson's harrowing, analytical documentary No End in Sight. It's worth noting that Ferguson was someone who supported our invasion of Iraq but grew increasingly disillusioned as the Bush administration repeatedly bungled key decisions in its aftermath. That's an important distinction: Ferguson's film is imbued with a sense of cold, calm anger that could only come from a person who felt such a deep sense of disappointment and betrayal. By comparison, Green Zone comes from filmmakers who already had their minds made up a long time ago -- the movie feels a bit like a victory lap for those who knew we were wrong from the start. It's a cruel irony that ideologically I'm closer to the people behind Green Zone but react so much more strongly to No End in Sight. But maybe that shouldn't be a surprise: Green Zone is really preaching to the choir. But even the choir should be smart enough to realize that films like this don't help one iota in resolving a conflict that even Jason Bourne can't fix.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.