' Cinema Romantico: Green Zone

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Green Zone

A couple weeks ago I lamented the fact how few film auteurs anymore recognize their own movie's end. Suddenly there I was hunkered down watching "Green Zone" and it had ended - and no, the ending line wasn't exactly "Forget it, Matt, it's Baghdad" but it would've done - and like I trusted Roman Polanski to know the end of "The Ghost Writer" I trusted director Paul Greengrass to know his "Green Zone" had just ended. And then Paul Greengrass betrayed me. What had been a relentless and fairly thrilling action/political hybrid morphed into a severe case of Pound The Hammer Syndrome as Matt Damon went Woodward & Bernstein all over everybody's ass.

But let's back up. It is the early days of the second Iraq war and Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his squad's job is to take military intelligence and locate and destroy those pesky Weapons Of Mass Destruction which were, you know, kinda the reason he and everyone else went to war in the first place. One problem - everywhere they go turns out to have absolutely no Weapons Of Mass Destruction. Harumph. When Miller deigns to point out the possibility of their intelligence being faulty he is essentially told to shut up.

CIA analyst Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), decidedly old school, agrees with Miller's assessment and tells him so. He thinks the Americans need to enlist the Iraq army in their cause to prevent a future civil war, the exact opposite of what the Pentagon's Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a figurehead for the entire Bush Administration (witness a scene of him applauding when watching TV footage of George W. declaring "Mission accomplished" - a place where I really don't think the film needed to go), whose job it is to disagree with Miller and Brown at every turn, functioning not simply as Miller's enemy but the audience's too.

I, of course, haven't even mentioned Wall Street Journalist Lawrie Dayne played by Amy Ryan in yet another one of her patented small, talent-wasting roles that exist simply to assist in providing information ("Magellan", or was it "Champlain"?) necessary for advancing the plot or a local Iraqi informant named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) who also provides critical info to our characters that would otherwise grind the story to a halt and General Al Rawi (Igal Naor) who the CIA is convinced the Americans need to avoid the chaos and, thus, who Poundstone is convinced needs to be eliminated at once.

This may come across as information overload but for a significant portion of the movie's running time Greengrass does a splendid job of barreling ahead at a blistering pace (admittedly with a plethora of unsettling hand-held camera work but, seriously, no one told Jimi to trade the electric guitar for the banjo and you don't tell Greengrass to stop shaking the camera) while feeding us just enough of the details to keep our bearings. Miller is the sort of character whom I tend to love, bringing to mind Michael Mann's idea of a hero and how it's actions that count and not necessarily what motivated you to do them. For over ninety minutes Miller refrains from reciting spell-everything-out speeches, acting primarily on the basis that he has consistently been lied to and, quite frankly, he's tired of the lies. No question this is the message Greengrass wishes to get across and the message is always more effective and poignant if you don't - as I said - Pound The Hammer. By showing us Miller in escalating situations, reacting and reacting again, growing more and more frustrated, we become his surrogate. And at the risk of pounding the hammer myself (screw it! I don't care) that is how you relay a movie's point, damn it.

(One important note: the screenplay, adapted from a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, was by Brian Helgeland, the same man who gave us the mother of all terrible Second Endings in "L.A. Confidential".)

Maybe for some this approach is fine. In fact, "Green Zone" and "The Hurt Locker" side-by-side would make a fascinating case study, not from a filmmaking standpoint, per se, as both are expertly made, but from a storytelling standpoint. Yeah, when "Green Zone" ends you are probably more apt to straight away get the "point" but at the end of which film do you feel more emotionally affected? I know which one I prefer.

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