Despite being a taught action-thriller and one of the best films of 2010 (granted we’re only two and half months into the year), only two things will be buzzed about Paul Greengrass’ (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) new Matt Damon-starring movie, Green Zone: Shaky/Queasy Cam and politics. Fortunately, most competent viewers will ease past the low-hanging, easy-to-reach baseless pedestrian criticisms and savor the unapologetic story Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (The Taking of Pelham 123) deliver with frantic zing.
Let’s talk story and politics first.
Green Zone is “inspired” by (versus “based on”) the 2006 non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The book, on many top ten lists in 2006-2007, was finalist for the National Book Award for non-fiction. Chandrasekaran does not make a case in his book for or against the United States invading Iraq, rather the pages give an in-depth look at the Coalition Provisional Authority, based in the Green Zone of Baghdad, and details the events from the end of the “shock and awe” invasion stage of the war to the handing over power to the Iraqis. I haven’t read the book (it’s on order from Amazon.com), but my initial impression is Dick Cheney probably didn’t send this out as a Christmas gift or have it on his nightstand back in 2006.
How does this translate to the screen? Very loosely. Make no mistake, while Greengrass and Helgeland definitely have pointed opinions and solid conclusions on the invasion of Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Green Zone is completely fictional and injected with enough far-fetched military antics to be both thought-provoking and entertaining. The story is powered by a veritable rogues gallery – a collection of characters in the new Iraq who seem to have differing agendas and report to no one.
The hero of this group is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a warrant officer searching for WMD and growing perplexed and frustrated upon repeatedly coming up empty handed. Miller believes things are amiss with the war in Iraq and becomes a one-man Army in his quest to discover the truth. He is buoyed by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the bureaucratic, cover-your-ass weasel; Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), an in-the-dark, outdated CIA agent – a so-called relic of the Cold War; Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and an apparent conglomerate of today’s headline-first, sloppy journalism; and finally, last but not least, the poor and downtrodden war-wounded local, Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), who is the voice of Joe Iraqi, who sums up the moral relevance of Green Zone in the finale, and I’m paraphrasing here, by saying, “it is not your place (the Americans) to determine the fate of our country.”
As for the complaints around Greengrass and his use or overuse of the Shaky/Queasy Cam, these arguments are ill-founded and miss the point. Sure, if it makes you want to yodel in the porcelain canyon, I get your aversion. You probably thought District 9, Cloverfield, Quarantine and The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum were barf rides as well, and I’m okay with you loathing this documentary, man-on-the-ground style of camerawork. What I can’t stand are those who claim purveyors of the Shaky/Queasy Cam, particularly Greengrass, can’t frame a stable shot, can’t edit worth a damn and suck at cinematography. On the contrary, the amount of planning and choreography, both during filming and post-production, needed to execute one of these turbulent action pieces is nothing short of staggering. But, again, the detractors seem a shortsighted group and indeed they have been ever since this style was officially named back in 1962 by Jonas Mekas. Writing in the magazine, Film Culture, which he started in 1954 with his brother Adolfas, Mekas said he was “sick and tired of the guardians of Cinema Art” accusing avant-garde cinematographers of poor camera skills. That was almost 50 years ago, but something tells me Mekas would be fond of Greengrass and his moviemaking style, particularly with Green Zone. This non-linear use of the camera works wonders in heightening the sheer tension of being a soldier on the streets of a darkened, scared and hostile Baghdad. The film doesn’t need to use this style to tell the tale, it must use it to get the point home and emphasize the chaos.
Green Zone won’t get the glory, laud and honor recently bestowed upon The Hurt Locker during last weekend’s Academy Awards, but make no mistake, the movie is equally as entertaining, tense and relevant. There isn’t one single overpowering factor that drives its impressiveness, instead the sum of the parts makes it work. I think if you can enter the theater with an open mind, you’ll enjoy every minute. But if you’ve don’t like rollercoasters, have a Sean Hannity tattoo and wrote-in George W. Bush on the 2008 presidential election ballot, you’ll probably come out grouchy.