In the Green Zone

26 March 2010

Written by: Kelly Theobald

Over the past few years, Hollywood has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts with thought-provoking, contemporary war films. While popcorn WW2 films such as Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbour have long proved blockbuster material, films depicting contemporary conflicts were few and far between unless packaged in an action context a la Black Hawk Down.

But with its recent wins at the Academy Awards, The Hurt Locker has become the latest in a string of critically adored films that explore themes of war in ways that reflect the same outpouring of cinematic criticism that followed the Vietnam War with the classics from Coppola, Stone and Scorsese.

While due praise has been lavished on these films for their focus on the psychological issues that come with warfare, the larger questions on the origins of the war in Iraq have largely gone undocumented in Hollywood. Stepping up to fill the void, A-list director Paul Greengrass returns to life without Jason Bourne in the new political thriller Green Zone.

In Green Zone Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, the leader of a military task force investigating the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the newly liberated Iraq. After coming up empty on three dangerous missions which intelligence reported as definite WMD sites, Miller begins to ask too many questions about the source of their intel. With the help of CIA officer Martin Brown (played by Brendan Gleeson) and Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (played by Amy Ryan) Miller begins to unravel the cover up that sent his country to war.

Marking Damon’s third team-up with director Paul Greengrass, the first two of course being The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone initially finds it hard to shake the similarities to their previous work together. While it’s a stretch to label the film ‘Bourne goes Iraq’ as many critics, and strangely the marketing team behind the film have, Green Zone’s themes, characters and visual style are very much reminiscent of the pairs previous outings.

The most immediate similarity, much to the chagrin of those who experience motion-sickness, is the ADD visual style Greengrass has become known for, which is in full effect in Green Zone. Consisting of rapid, fast-paced cutting with an emphasis on often shaky, handheld camera work, Greengrass’ visual style is extremely dividing with audiences because while it places you directly into the action in a very visceral way, it can often obfuscate what’s in frame. Thankfully Greengrass has honed his style to perfection in Green Zone, with the final chase scene in particular meshing beautifully despite its drawn-out length. The documentary, hand-held visual style Greengrass uses however is somewhat undermined by the lush score that sits behind it. Despite its rousing nature, in context the score doesn’t mesh well with the films visual style, which would be far better suited with a more subdued score.

Damon’s portrayal of Miller hits the mark perfectly, effectively conveying the idealistic hope we all held that the WMD’s would eventually be found to justify the invasion of Iraq. Miller’s idealistic view of the war gradually crumbles as he begins to doubt both the existence of the WMD’s and the authority of his superiors, yet despite Millers obvious subordination, Damon anchors the character’s morals very carefully to successfully navigate us through the ethical quagmire of military politics. Green Zone’s supporting cast of Brendan Gleeson and Amy Ryan become increasingly important as Miller’s plight puts him in over his head, and are an integral part in conveying the films central political messages. But its Greg Kinnear’s surprising performance as corrupt Pentagon Special Intelligence officer Clark Poundstone that steals the show. Kinnear plays the villain role very precisely, never slipping the character out of reality to generate his status as a bad guy. By far the most interesting character on screen, Poundstone oozes a charm and confidence that makes him very easy to hate, an important response for a character that we find out essentially started the Iraq invasion under false pretences.

While the story is fictional, Green Zone is loosely based on real life, adapted from journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s award-winning book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction novel largely informs the context of the green zone of Baghdad, lending a realism to the films locations that is immediately arresting. The intersection between the city’s war-ravaged landscape and the green zone’s westernised quarters is a fascinating juxtaposition in location that serves as a great visual reminder of the growing resentment among civilians to the invasion.

While it is loosely adapted from journalistic non-fiction much like The Hurt Locker, Green Zone fails to hold the same ground in terms of realism because it works within the constraints of a mainstream Hollywood narrative. With the kind of budget Green Zone was made on ($130 million USD) comes a level of artistic restriction that pushes what should have been a far more complex film into this conventional hero/villain Hollywood narrative.

This pushes the film outside of the believability it plays on with its journalistic non-fiction source material, but ultimately makes the film far easier to swallow and get your head around than other films of its type. But just like the politicians that languish in the safe Iraqi green zone, the film plays it safe with a plot and structure that is both immediately recognisable and somewhat predictable.

Thematically Green Zone surprisingly treads on the same ground Greengrass and Damon have explored in their Bourne films, primarily the search for the truth, government cover-ups, and the one-man-army mentality that made those films such hits. What Green Zone brings to the game though is a biting criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the rebuilding of Iraq and a sharp examination of the original motives behind the invasion.

Green Zone wears its left-leaning politics on its sleeve, but does so in a nuanced manner, that is until the final act, where the film takes a very ham-fisted approach that becomes a bit hard to swallow. The climax of the film is especially cringe-inducing, but fortunately Green Zone comes home strong and doesn’t entirely disappoint with its finish.

It’s a film that will definitely polarize audiences politically and stylistically, but with its solid performances, impressive direction and intriguing if predictable plot, Green Zone is able to overcome its few shortcomings to become a worthy successor to Damon and Greengrass’ Bourne franchise.

Michael Calle is a recent La Trobe University Bachelor of Journalism graduate. His blogis called  Terminals.