***1/2 (three and a half stars)
In my previous review of "The Book Of Eli," I focused strongly on the adverse effects of the over-utilization of cinematic style and tricks at the expense of the substance of storytelling, a constant theme here at Savage Cinema. Now, I'm going to take it a step further. Sometimes, when a director is known for a certain audio-visual style, it can either produce an attraction to seeing a filmmaker’s latest work or the thought of sitting through their new experience can actually repel you to the point of not wanting to relinquish two to three hours of your life, never to see it again. Director Paul Greengrass has quickly become a filmmaker that I would tend to place in the latter category. Not because I believe he makes bad films. Greengrass is the filmmaker behind “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) and the critically acclaimed “United 93” (2006), yet I do not care for his films and am also reluctant to sit through any more of his work solely due to his cinematic style.
I have to say right up front that I am not a fan of the “Bourne” franchise. As I said, I do not think of them as bad movies, however, I have to say that I just do not find any of them very memorable…an ironic critique due to the plots of those three films. I have seen them all several times and I am hard pressed to describe more than a couple of events in any of the films, and truth be told, I just may have gotten all three of them, mixed up in my head. I mostly do not like the films because of Greengrass’ over-directed, hyper-kinetic visual style which is filtered through ADD editing and copious amounts of the handheld “shaky cam,” a technique when held Greengrass' hands is nausea inducing to the point where I just mentally check out of the experience. In regards to “United 93,” my desire to see that film was non-existent due to the subject matter as I did not want to buy a ticket to have a ride on the doomed 9/11 flight. That said, Greengrass’ involvement sealed the deal.
Now, we arrive at “Green Zone,” a political thriller set during the early years of the post 9/11 Iraq war. Unlike the highly stylized and ridiculous “The Book Of Eli,” plus my resistance to Greengrass’ earlier work, the film is a decidedly adult, intelligent, deeply resonant, vibrant and perceptive work that is actually enhanced by Greengrass’ aggressive visual aesthetics. "Green Zone" was a film that I was actually prepared to hate and it ultimately made for a surprisingly strong film-going experience.
Matt Damon reunites with Greengrass for the third time and gives another rock solid performance in the role of Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a soldier growing increasingly frustrated at his inability to discover Weapons of Mass Destruction in Baghdad, despite the intelligence he and his troops are receiving from the United States government. As Miller begins to question as to why no WMDs are being found anywhere, as they were presented as being one of the primary reasons for America’s invasion, he is met with great resistance and interference from Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). Yet, Miller has also gained the attentive interests of veteran CIA operative Martin Brown (Brenden Gleeson) and Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne, (Amy Ryan—underused but very glad to see her at all), as both are highly skeptical of Poundstone’s motives.
Miller’s trail grows increasingly more intense once he goes rogue from his troop as his investigative and decidedly moral pursuits involves the discovery of a mysterious Iraqi government official under the code name of “Magellan,” as well as an extremely important book that is of great interest to most of the film’s characters. As his search grows more dogged and labyrinthine, and the violence of the region escalates, Miller continuously searches the truth, not only concerning the whereabouts of the mysterious WMDs, but most importantly, the reasons for why we went to war in the first place.
As with “The Book Of Eli,” the plot of “Green Zone” is decidedly simple while containing complex themes. Yet unlike “The Book Of Eli,” Greengrass has taken his time to actually understand the implications of his material by having his characters and his audience ask the hard, necessary questions of the hows and why we went to war with Iraq. Miller, with blistering fury, shouts at Poundstone late in the film about the necessity of having valid reasons for ever going to war, it is as if Greengrass himself has wrestled with the ramifications of our still existing war, yowling his angry confusion from the pulpits.
Instead of presenting a film in the fashion Oliver Stone may have done years ago, I found what Greengrass and Damon have accomplished in the presentation of “Green Zone” to actually quite clever as well as being quite the gamble to attract audiences to material it has steadfast remained away from in the cinema. By utilizing a style nearly identical to their work on the “Bourne” films, perhaps this was a way to potentially attract fans of that series into the movie theater. Once those viewers were in theater seats, they would not be given “Bourne 4” but a highly charged political story that is bold and brazen enough to simultaneously critique the motives of United States government, sympathize with the Iraqi citizens and honor the soldiers on the ground every day.
The film’s story is set up quickly and brilliantly, its objectives are crystal clear without dumbing them down for mass audiences. “Green Zone” provides no easy answers yet asks all of the right questions. And what we end up with is a film that thematically has much less in common with the “Bourne” pictures and much more in common with Director Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker.”
Greengrass' kinetic style and concepts are in lockstep, and they should be. His relentless shaky cam and heavy editing are run rampant throughout “Green Zone” but instead of repelling me, it actually brought me closer to the battleground, enhancing the paranoia and life threatening urgency of the landscape. At times, “Green Zone” had the appearance of a documentary, with camera operators on the run alongside Miller and the soldiers, giving you a “You Are There” experience.
The style also brought me in closer to Damon’s tremendous and rightfully aggravated performance. By taking the genre clichés of the standard “Lone Gunman” character, Roy Miller is a terrific stand in for those in the military who may have become disillusioned with our role in our two continuing wars, as well as the confused, worried and frustrated family members and civilians here at home. You can see the sweat beads on his brow and feel his pulse quickening with each blind alley he is led downwards as he pursues the truth. His anguish at not knowing the full reasons for why the United States is at war with Iraq echoes the feelings of so many(including my own) and his Roy Miller made for a hero I was eager to follow as I want the exact same answers to his questions. In war, all of the details definitely matter as the lives of countless many are placed in jeopardy and how dare we place those lives in jeopardy for illicit reasons. I commend Greengrass and Damon for stepping this far into dangerous political territory for it is a creative risk worth taking.
Unfortunately, the risk backfired financially as “Green Zone” vanished from theaters this Spring fairly quickly. But, I do gently urge you to give this film a shot on DVD as Greengrass strongly balances his film on a tightrope with a heaping amount of action and political discourse on both sides where style and substance met each other brilliantly.