“Democracy is messy.”
After 2009’s critical darling (and one of my top ten of the year) The Hurt Locker made such a splash at the Oscars, Paul Greengrass sends us back to the Middle East with Green Zone, his adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction novel Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Traveling along with him, and us, are Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Jason Isaacs, and most notably Matt Damon, a.k.a. the star of the Jason Bourne trilogy (for which Greengrass provided the second and third installments).
Naturally, everyone wants to know if Green Zone is simply Greengrass’ underhanded attempt to trick us into watching Bourne 4. Happily, I can say that the director’s latest only resembles Bourne in the aesthetic to action sequences each of the three films share with one another. More than that, Green Zone successfully merges the Greengrass of the Bourne films with the Greengrass who brought us United 93 four years ago. The result isn’t totally perfect, but it’s an overall excellent effort– tense, fast-paced, loaded with a kinetic sort of energy, though it does become a bit too on-the-nose at points. (And in a post-Hurt Locker world, that could very well be considered something of a deal-breaker.)
For most, the critical point of the film lies in how Greengrass approaches shooting action scenes– that shaky camera that turned audiences off of The Bourne Ultimatum shows up in force, instantly putting the film in lower regard for people with sensitive stomachs. Quite literally, Greengrass just isn’t for everybody, and it inevitably comes back to his style for many. Generally, when I write reviews, I mention stylistic touches and the director’s presence in the film towards the middle or end of any given piece, but Greengrass’ films work marvelously or fail spectacularly based on the specific style he favors. In short, if shaky cam gives you acid tummy, then this definitely is not the movie for you– which means that the rest of the review, glowing as it may be, won’t be all that useful. For fans of the style, Green Zone‘s use of the shaky camera is perhaps more mastered here than in the Bourne films, and for good reason. Greengrass has been working with editor Christopher Rouse for the last six years, together developing a method for translating the visual chaos of the director’s style into a coherent total film. With the hyper-active nature of Greengrass’ camera, that there’s a sense of physical continuity is impressive; through the fast cuts and the quaking lens, location remains firmly founded. During the urgent, confused, and immediate action set pieces, there are moments where it becomes difficult to tell what’s on screen, but these are milliseconds of indecipherable cinema that never truly lead us astray.
Green Zone loosely bases itself on Chandrasekaran’s 2006 non-fiction, critical review of the American reconstruction efforts taking place in Iraq. Whereas the author seems to be aiming for a more scholarly approach, Greengrass instead takes us on an intelligent thrill ride. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Green Zone follows Damon’s Warrant Officer and his team as they risk life and limb attempting to uncover WMD’s based on U.S. military intelligence, provided by a mysterious and unidentified source known as “Magellan” by the army brass. For all of us who kept score at home, it’s no surprise that Damon and his crew find nothing (except for a toilet factory decorated with liberal amounts of pigeon feces; feel free to translate that as you wish). Damon grows suspicious, and frustrated, and begins to question his orders, defying the orders of his superiors to find out the truth.
For some that might sound pretty close to the story of Jason Bourne, minus the identity crisis, but Greengrass and Damon both go out of their way to keep this from feeling like just another Bourne film. Damon’s Roy Miller isn’t some impeccable, ineffable, and indomitable ass-kicking machine; sure, he’s skilled, high-functioning, and competent, but he’s no super-powered government agent. We connect with Miller differently than we connect with Bourne– we root for Bourne and we care for him because of the wrongs done to him, and we want him to redeem himself for the wrongs that he personally has committed.
Miller, on the other hand, is just trying to perform the tasks assigned to him. In the grand scheme of things, he’s simply doing a job like the rest of us. (Admittedly, my job doesn’t involve being shot at every day, so I suppose he’s not quite like the rest of us.) Maybe he’s not an everyman, but he’s no superman, either. He’s not capable of single-handedly bringing down legions of armed bad guys; in fact it takes all of his ability and experience to barely take down one man by himself. It makes us feel a bit closer to him even if what Miller does every day is worlds apart from what we do, and it adds a degree of risk to the plot that Bourne might lack. (Which is not to say that Supremacy, Ultimatum, and the non-Greengrass directed Identity aren’t great films; they are. But Damon is playing on God Mode.) It’s to both Brian Helgeland’s and Matt Damon’s credit that Miller feels completely like his own character and not a retread of what’s worked in the past.
The supporting cast, for the most part, is no less impressive, though Amy Ryan winds up saddled with the most thankless and lazily written role of the picture, playing a journalist investigating the U.S.’s intel on Iraq’s WMDs. Ryan admirably does what she can with her character, but essentially plays bit part created to deliver clumsy exposition and disappear until the denouement, where she does…nothing important. Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson, playing the devil and the angel on Miller’s shoulders, respectively, fare much better with significantly beefier roles. Kinnear briskly goes through the motions playing a Pentagon suit, turning out an entrancing performance as the film’s requisite unlikable government bureaucrat/bastard. Another actor might have let the role feel totally stock, but Kinnear’s a pro at this kind of stuff. Gleeson does a bit worse as the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief– he could have used some real voice coaching here– but he’s Gleeson, and Gleeson’s almost always great.
The biggest non-Damon pleasures of the film lie in Jason Isaacs, playing a dark foil to Miller’s goody-two-shoes soldier (if you didn’t know Isaacs was in the movie, you’d never know that you were watching him; he practically melts into the role), and Khalid Abdalla, who you may recognize as the adult Amir from 2007’s The Kite Runner. Abdalla, like Ryan, is saddled with the task of delivering exposition, but his Freddy has much more to do in the greater scheme of Green Zone‘s story. Most notably he plays Freddy like a real character, someone with history and genuine connection to the unfolding events of the film and who is best positioned to comment on them and involve himself in them. (Though Freddy would rather not involve himself at all.)
If the film has a stumbling point (and it does), it’s that it’s often heavy-handed in its commentary. Green Zone doesn’t quite beat us about the head with its perspectives and ideas, but there’s no question who the “good guys” are in Greengrass’ eyes, as seen in the way that Damon and Isaacs, as well as Kinnear and Gleeson, mirror one another. Scruples, morals, the desire to do what’s best and what’s right, and a willingness to question authority all define our heroes; certainly they’re not perfect, but they’re easy to admire and respect. We know who we’re supposed to favor. And while one can’t fault Greengrass for picking a side in his film– after all, it’s not a documentary– I found myself wishing that a little more nuance could have been added to characters on either end of the polemic. Put bluntly, I know where I stand on the Iraq war, and I’d have appreciated a more even approach to the material (especially given the nature of Chandrasekaran’s book). This doesn’t break the film by any means– it’s a strong entry in Greengrass’ body of work for certain– but it may keep it from being truly great.