Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

It is quite natural to assume that Green Zone suffers in comparison to The Hurt Locker. Yet it hardly came to mind while I viewed the film. Paul Greengrass' Iraq War thriller takes a far broader perspective than Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning drama does. Within the first few minutes, Matt Damon is standing up and asking the big questions of his commanders – Are there really any WMDs in Iraq? Who is making these claims? – and any sense of on-the-ground immediacy gives way to concerns of espionage and politics.

This is why a very different film haunted me as I watched Green Zone – the 2007 documentary, No End in Sight. If you wish to save yourself the trouble of reading this entire review, I'll cut to the chase: Go watch No End in Sight instead. Its pragmatic assessment of the invasion of Iraq is infinitely more damning, more revolting and more moving than Green Zone's historical fiction contrivances.

Early on in both films, the post-invasion looting that ravaged Iraq in 2003 is portrayed. In Green Zone, the audience witnesses Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller's (Matt Damon) confusion as he finds a potential WMD storage facility being stripped bare by Iraqi civilians. Then, a minute later, Miller resolves to enter the facility anyway, and completes his mission without considerable incident. The looting is a striking sight that is neither explained nor revisited later in the film.

Focusing the film's narrative on Miller is a perfectly valid choice, but that does not change the fact that what is happening in the background is often far more interesting. Obviously, Miller finds no weapons at this site – a trend that is beginning to bother him. This leads him to question the quality of the intelligence the Army has provided. Intrigue ensues, but with a fatal flaw: We already know that there are no WMDs and, nevertheless, we must watch Miller struggle to uncover this fact for the next hour or so. So, the questions that are far more relevant here, in 2010, go unasked.

No End in Sight starts where Miller's story ends – it knows that the WMDs were a fabrication and it knows that Iraq was a hopeless mess by the time President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in May 2003. So, when No End in Sight shows us the looting, it asks the questions we want it to ask: Why was it happening? How was it allowed to happen? Just how much damage did it do? The answers this documentary provides are far more affecting than anything in Green Zone: News footage shows the director of the Iraqi National Museum watching, in tears, as looters tear apart thousands of years of Arab history. He is helpless to stop them because the US military is too wrapped up in red tape to raise a finger.

So, director, Paul Greengrass does hit all of the bullet points for accurately portraying post-invasion Iraq, but these scenes are so divorced from both their causes and their effects that they are meaningless – merely there to up the intensity of Miller's adventure.

This adventure is hardly anything to get excited about, either. Even if one overlooks the fact that the audience knows the big answers already, the plot seems to swerve between being simplistic and being unnecessarily complicated. The antagonist is a dickish Bush Administration official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) who, predictably, ignores common sense in favor of small, superficial victories – installing some crony in power and killing an Iraqi ex-general. While Kinnear is talented enough to keep the character from seeming cartoonish, and the script suggests that the corruption goes higher, the audience is still led to believe that this one guy is largely responsible for the disaster that is post-invasion Iraq. It is a bit silly and, after the film adds a few obligatory layers of convolution, it does not become easier to swallow.

Like the directing, Brian Helgeland's script does make a number of nods to the true complexity of the situation. Yet they are constantly steamrolled over by Miller's left-wing Jack Bauer act. Reality seems to scroll by behind him as he breaks rule after rule in some misguided attempt to fix everything. There is one moment where a character seems to catch Miller in the naivety of his mission, but the the movie ends with a scene that leaves little doubt as to his status as Our Hero. It is frustrating because Helgeland clearly has some interesting things to say, perhaps courtesy of the source material, but he prefers to have it boil down to a Good Guy vs. Bad Guy scenario.

Even so, the film's climax manages to be quite confusing. By this point, Miller has been running around, flouting orders for so long that it becomes unclear how his actions will solve anything. Also, the director's frantic visual style has pushed everything over the edge into headache-inducing territory.

Normally, I would say that Paul Greengrass' style is used to great effect. His breakneck editing and jittery camerawork is often the very best in controlled chaos, only conveying the bare minimum of information necessary to pull the viewer through the action. The style's potential for truly thrilling action is on full display in the film's opening sequence – an extremely intense depiction of Iraqi officials evacuating a palace in the middle of the US's "Shock and Awe" campaign. When a character goes into a prolonged action sequence with vague intentions, however, the proceedings can border on incomprehensible. When Miller does just this at the climax of Green Zone, it becomes downright tedious.

It is sad that Green Zone's narrative fails the film because this movie is often quite good looking. I cannot claim to have ever visited Baghdad, but this film employs a very convincing mix of CGI and locations to create a facsimile of the Iraqi capital. Many of the surreal settings convey Saddam's sudden fall from power: His palaces are now ransacked and filled with bunking US soldiers, and many of his vain monuments are now partly destroyed. Cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd does a great job of bringing some beauty to the city, not merely sticking with the same drab palette of colors we usually see in Hollywood's Iraq. Even the climactic nighttime shootout looks more interesting than one would expect, with back streets lit by a nice smattering of colors.

I suppose it may sound like an insult when I claim that a documentary is more involving than this thriller but, on some level, it is a compliment. There is never any doubt that Green Zone is a well-made film, and it must be praised for largely refusing to dumb down its subject matter; Greengrass and company clearly went out of their way to create an authentic Baghdad, both visually and thematically. Yet this film always has one foot in the realm of the Hollywood action flick, blunting its impact with an abundance of action sequences and a bland, ineffectual script. Greengrass prides himself on creating immediacy and urgency but, oddly enough, Green Zone feels like too little, too late.

No End in Sight is currently available on DVD and Netflix Watch Instantly.

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