Monday, March 15, 2010

Movie Review: Green Zone

Green Zone *** ½
Directed By:
Paul Greengrass.
Written By: Brian Helegeland based on the book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Starring: Matt Damon (Miller), Greg Kinnear (Clark Poundstone), Brendan Gleeson (Martin Brown), Amy Ryan (Lawrie Dayne), Khalid Abdalla (Freddy), Yigal Naor (Al Rawi), Jason Isaacs (Briggs), Said Faraj (Seyyed Hamza), Aymen Hamdouchi (Ayad Hamza).

For the first few years of the war in Iraq, Hollywood filmmakers seemed to shy away from making films about it. When they finally did, they couldn’t seem to make anything other than sermons about the subject, and audiences stayed away from the films in droves. Despite big casts of stars, movies like Rendition and Lions for Lambs completely bombed. Brian DePalma’s Redacted was barely released, and no one took any notice of it (in that case, at least, audience apathy was well earned, as it a sophomoric effort for a filmmaker who should know better). Even a great film like Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, which didn’t demonize or deify anyone, was ignored. The recent Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, changed that somewhat – but it should be noted that the majority of audiences are just now discovering the film on DVD – and again, virtually ignored the film when it was released in theaters.

Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone looks to change that. In a way, it is as much of a sermon as Rendition or Lions for Lambs was (which is why Fox News has already attacked the film as “anti-American”), but wraps its message in the kind of kinetic action film that Greengrass perfected with the second two Bourne movies. While some critics have already labeled the movie “too little, too late”, I think it is yet another small step forward in filming the war for the movies. After all, most of the great Vietnam movies weren’t made until well after the war ended – while the war in Iraq keeps raging on with no end in sight – despite the promises of Barack Obama.

The movie takes place in 2003, and centers on Ray Miller (Matt Damon), who heads up a unit responsible for hitting all the sites that intelligence tells them that Weapons of Mass Destruction are hiding. In site after site, they come up with nothing. No WMDs, no evidence that they ever existed there in the first place. This is starting to frustrate Miller, as men are dying to secure these empty sites, and after all, the threat of WMDs was the reason they went to war in the first place.

There are three other major American characters in the film. Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) has been handpicked by the administration to run things on the ground in Iraq, despite the fact that he has no experience in the area, and doesn’t understand the people who make up the country. He was the one responsible for the intelligence in the first place – all supposedly originating for a high placed Iraqi official known only as Magellan. He hand fed all the information to a reporter for the Washington Post, Laura Dayne (Amy Ryan), who helped make the case for war in the first place. But Dayne is getting frustrated that all her stories seem to have led to no weapons being found, and her reputation is on the line. She pressures Poundstone to give her access to Magellan, but he refuses. The third character is Martin Brown (Brendan Gleason), the CIA’s man in Iraq, who has spent his entire career studying the Middle East, and knows the players, and knows what America needs to do if the invasion of Iraq is going to lead to long term peace. He is ignored by everyone involved, and Poundstone goes out of his way to thwart his efforts. Poundstone and his people know what is right, and that’s final.

In terms of the broad strokes of the story, Green Zone gets the facts mostly right, even if the story has been “fictionalized”. Based on the great book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which used the real names, the movie simplifies things, but basically sticks to what we know. The intelligence gathered to suggest there were WMDs in Iraq was manipulated by Administration officials to make the case for war in Iraq, which was then handfed to the media, who didn’t bother to question any of it, and fed it to the American people. Once the invasion took place, the administration picked loyalists like Paul Bremmer, to lead the team in Iraq – picked for their political views and their ability to do what they were told by their higher ups in the government – who made one mistake after another in Iraq – from picking an exile who hadn’t been in Iraq for years to be the political leader of the country, to the disbanding of the Iraqi army – making thousands of armed young men angry at America. The Middle Eastern experts who rallied against these decisions were ignored, and eventually forced out. All of this leading to the quagmire we now have in Iraq (if you want to know more detailed information, but are too lazy to read Chanresekaran’s book, picked up the documentary No End in Sight, which also details the information).

While the movie makes no effort to conceal its political agenda, it is not solely about it either. It states its points, but a lot of the movie is made up of wonderful action sequences as well – as Damon and company have fire fights, and are involved in car chases, all to try to bring in an Iraqi General (who was the Jack of Spades in the deck issued of Iraq’s most wanted), who will be able to give them the real intelligence. Not only does Damon have to outmaneuver Iraqis, but he also has to avoid the Army Special Forces, led by Briggs (Jason Issacs), who are under Poundstone’s control, who doesn’t want the General captured – he wants him killed. These scenes are shot in the same frenetic pace of rapid cuts that Greengrass used in The Bourne movies. Greengrass uses this style properly, and with great skill, unlike Michael Bay, whose shots are cut so rapidly you have no idea what is happening. In the Greengrass movies, you always know what is happening, and the pace just serves to up the tension.

There are times where the two warring ideologies of the movie seem at odds – the political content doesn’t always fit in with the action movies aspects as comfortably as the filmmakers would like. However, most of the time, they come together. Greengrass and company have made a movie that furthers its point, but is also entertaining and exciting. Green Zone is not going to change anyone’s mind about the war in Iraq – people on both sides seem completely entrenched in their positions – but it is an exciting, intelligent movie. Those are rare.

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