Monday, March 15, 2010

Review - Green Zone

Green Zone begins with Shock and Awe, and Paul Greengrass tries to maintain that tone for the rest of the movie. Anyone who has seen this director's previous collaborations with star Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum) will know what to expect from their new picture, but their third time isn't a charm. I'm not sure why the techniques I found thrilling on two previous occasions feel so unsatisfying this time, but I think it has something to do with the setting and the genre that Greengrass is working in. Green Zone opens on March 19th 2003, the night that US forces launched an airstrike on Iraq before the Coalition invasion of the country began. Choosing to open with this date is a statement on the part of the filmmakers that this is a film set very much in the real world, and that what we are about to see has some basis in fact. As a result, the subsequent spiral into false heroics feels both inappropriate and insulting.

Paul Greengrass brought a bracing sense of reality to his two Bourne pictures, but those films still had one foot in the fantasy world of the spy genre. Green Zone is an awkward mix of ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling and action movie thrills, although it's hard to deny that Greengrass can still direct that action better than almost anyone else. This time, Damon is playing Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, although the character is very much cut from the same cloth as Bourne – brave, square and honest, and willing to go rogue if things aren't to his liking. He is part of a team assigned to locate WMD in the sites that US intelligence has highlighted as being full of stockpiled weapons, even though we all know what a futile task this will be. When three searches on the spin come up empty, Miller begins questioning the faulty intelligence, although these questions are the kind that those in power – such as Pentagon lackey Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) – don't want to hear. Aligning himself with an equally sceptical CIA chief (a shakily accented Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter who was herself duped by the intelligence (Amy Ryan, looking bored), Miller decides to look into the veracity of the US intelligence source himself, and he uncovers a conspiracy that suggests the government knowingly used the fictitious WMD reports to justify the war they wanted all along.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland is unsubtle and shallow, but for a while Green Zone hurtles along efficiently enough on the momentum that Greengrass creates. The impressive scale of the picture allows the director to create a thoroughly convincing portrayal of life in Iraq during the first weeks of the invasion, with the citizens desperate for water, with looting rife throughout the city, and with the dark nights lit only by the flares of rockets fired overhead. Greengrass manages to make us feel part of this environment, in the same way he did with 1970's Derry in Bloody Sunday, and his typically restless direction conveys the chaos and confusion that characterised this period. Other familiar aspects of Greengrass' filmmaking that reoccur here include a strident score by John Powell, rapid-fire editing courtesy of Christopher Rouse, and a strong central performance from Matt Damon. He is the most plausible action hero in American cinema right now, and his performance here is marked by the actor's customary empathy and intelligence, which helps give the rather one-note Miller a few extra shades.

Green Zone is also genuinely thrilling in places. Greengrass is a master of building tension and staging action sequences at maximum velocity, and while Green Zone is a little lighter on action that his previous films, there are still some marvellous set-pieces here. The film climaxes with a superb sequence involving a rescue and a chase through the backstreets between Miller and Special Forces agent Briggs (Jason Isaacs, sporting a magnificent moustache), which is a supremely gripping piece of filmmaking. However, the more Greengrass gets into his blockbusting groove with this film, the more it feels detached from reality, and it's a shame the verisimilitude that was so impressive in the film's recreation of Baghdad circa 2003 doesn't extend to the storytelling. When Helgeland wants to make his political points he tends to drive them home with blunt force, but the film's biggest misstep is its climax. Given his background in serious journalism, I'm surprised that Greengrass has willingly made a film that rewrites recent history in such a clumsy way, but I guess nobody's going to give you $100 million to make a war movie if your hero doesn't get to be a hero. After two hours of attacking US policy, the need to give the material a positive spin has led Helgeland and Greengrass to graft on a bullshit ending that suggests the truth about WMD could have been exposed a lot sooner if only some soldier had displayed the tenacity and investigative skills of Matt Damon. It's far too trite a conclusion for a film about a conflict that is still a raw, gaping wound seven years later. 20/20 hindsight is easy, but real life is an awful lot messier.