Friday, March 12, 2010

The Green Zone: Zoning out

The Green Zone (2010) • View trailer for The Green Zone
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.12.10
Buy DVD: The Green Zone • Buy Blu-Ray: Green Zone [Blu-ray]

The Green Zone gets by with a lot due to momentum, which is fortunate; the moment you stop to think about Brian Helgeland's ludicrous script, the whole thing falls apart.

This much-heralded reunion between director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon  after working together on the latter two entries in the Bourne series  is nothing more than fanciful wish fulfillment: a revisionist take on the "big lie" that got the United States into Iraq, guaranteed to delight liberals and enrage conservatives.
After foolishly charging into the rabbit warren of Baghdad's mean streets late
one night, hoping to facilitate a meeting with the high-level members of Iraq's
Baath party who've gone to ground, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt
Damon, center) gets kidnapped by parties unknown. What, like he should
be surprised?

Given the rigorous military protocols established at the outset of this war zone drama  which takes place in 2003, right around the time President Bush naively declared "victory in Iraq" during his infamous photo-op  it's simply not credible to accept the notion of a lone wolf soldier breaking rank, ignoring the chain of command and plunging pell-mell into the middle of Baghdad, because he knows The Truth Is Out There.

Not even if the lone wolf is Matt Damon.

Perhaps sensing his uncertain footing, Greengrass makes a point, in his film's press notes, of insisting that, "This is not a movie about the war in Iraq. It's a thriller set in Iraq."

Yeah, right. And if my grandmother'd had wheels, she'd have been a trolley car.

It's simply not possible to view this film, and its preposterous storyline, while ignoring the context of recent events that remain quite fresh in everybody's memory ... and, in fact, continue to unfold to this day.

Initially, the actions taken by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) are reasonable, if unlikely; all too soon, however, he morphs into Jason Bourne while blithely ignoring personal safety ... and the safety of the half-dozen men who faithfully follow him.

Honestly, the word "reckless" can't begin to cover this film's third act.

On top of which, I kept wondering: Doesn't anybody wonder why Miller and his men keep disappearing, on unauthorized missions? Shouldn't somebody be reprimanding him for repeated insubordination? Isn't he accountable to anybody?

Apparently not.

Helgeland's script, according to the credits, is "inspired" by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's best-selling nonfiction book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. I'd love to know what Chandrasekaran thinks of this film; I picture rolled eyes and snorts of amused disgust.


Events begin as Miller and his team are dispatched to the Baghdad location of yet another supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction: a mission that proves to be a waste of time, like several similar sorties before it. Miller is steamed; these trips through angry crowds and treacherous alleys are highly dangerous, and he dislikes risking the lives of his men on fools' errands.

(Risking their lives for his own fool's errand, later on, seems perfectly OK. I guess that's Hollywood.)

His effort to challenge the authenticity of the information, during a subsequent briefing, is met with the expected reprimand: His job is to follow orders, not question their origins. But Miller's visible irritation draws notice from veteran CIA station chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who has his own reasons to disbelieve the bland assurances coming from Defense Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the local White House lap dog.

Poundstone also is being challenged by embedded Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan, so well remembered from Gone Baby Gone). Dayne is beginning to realize that Poundstone has used her to legitimize the White House's reasons for this war, and she doesn't like it; she's starting to ask tough questions about the concealed "high-level informant" who has produced all the 'valuable' intel that Miller, in the field, finds utterly useless.

The two remaining characters of note are Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) an unemployed Iraqi veteran who struggles with a prosthetic leg and a battered Toyota Corolla, and who reluctantly becomes Miller's translator; and Lt. Col. Briggs (Jason Isaacs), a special forces team leader who serves as Poundstone's black-ops specialist.

Damon makes a great gung-ho hero, and I've no problem with the character reading; he's simply not in the right movie. Kinnear is properly condescending as the resident officious jerk, and Gleeson  a great actor who always brings more to his roles than what he finds on the printed page  is believably world-weary as the lone voice of reason who understands, all too well, what's about to happen in Iraq.

Abdalla's Freddy is the one genuinely sympathetic character in this story, and his behavior always feels correct and credible. Isaacs' Briggs, on the other hand, is just this side of a cartoon: another in the recent line of thuggish bad-guy soldiers who never stop hassling our hero, as with Stephen Lang (in Avatar) and David James (District 9). The stereotype is becoming tiresome.

The various men under Miller's command are nameless, faceless and of no consequence.

Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse (the same two Bourne films, along with United 93) haven't lost their touch with frantic chases and action scenes, and to a degree this film can be appreciated for its sheer energy. Barry Ackroyd's "shaky-cam" cinematography augments the already tense, jittery atmosphere, and the firefights are persuasively disorienting.

The film looks sensational; production designer Dominic Watkins did a great job of transforming Spanish, British and Moroccan locations into the Baghdad war zone, both inside and outside "the bubble."

In fairness, Greengrass delivers an impressive roller coaster ride, and Green Zone certainly will please undemanding fans seeking no more than thrills. But other viewers will find context impossible to ignore; at a remove of only seven years, this film quite irritatingly trivializes the Iraqi war zone, much like 2007's naive and unapologetically racist The Kingdom.

The Hurt Locker keeps looking better and better, by comparison.

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