John Nolte at Big Hollywood:
The poetic irony of the delayed release of the shaky-cammed Hollywood temper tantrum known as “Green Zone” couldn’t be sweeter. Yes, the very same week our Iraqi allies held a historic election that ended up much more successful than we could have ever hoped, our own Hollywood swoops in with a piece of cinematic sour grapes in the frantic, desperate hope of rewriting the history of a war they were so eager for us to lose.
After making the last two “Bourne” films together, director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon have teamed up again in an un-thrilling attempt to transfer that same success to the streets of Baghdad. But this time within a very real and recent historical event, the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a vacuum where history doesn’t exist, the film’s absurd premise would still undermine itself. But Greengrass isn’t working in a vacuum. Unfortunately for him, we all know the truth and this truth reduces his story to a strained, poorly contrived, episodic, Hollywood Hills fever dream that no amount of suspended disbelief can overcome.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a good soldier in charge of an army team on the search for WMD four weeks after shock and awe. Baghdad is in chaos as the newly liberated Iraqis loot the city and scattered snipers take potshots at anyone wearing the American flag. Miller risks his own life and those of his men based on intelligence that’s supposed to reveal the location of Saddam’s WMD facilities. And this is the third time they’ve come up empty. Frustrated and angry, Miller starts to ask questions and demand answers about the source of the intel. Naturally, his commanding officers aren’t interested in answering those questions or even facing the possibility the weapons might not be found. That would upset the Bush administration’s narrative of the New Iraq.
Dana Stevens in Slate:
As an action-adventure thriller, The Green Zone holds up fairly well, despite a few significant plot holes and a rather large dollop of Greengrass’ trademark shaky-cam. Damon is likable in his squinty, stolid Bourne mode, and Brendan Gleeson is terrific as the Cassandra-like spy; he not only ably discards his Irish accent but invents a great American one, a pinched, nasal Midwestern twang. But the movie (which was shot two years ago and has been sitting on Universal’s shelf ever since) feels stale, its anti-war message stuck in the mid-2000s. When we see Bush on a TV screen in the green zone declaring “Mission accomplished!” on that aircraft carrier, the irony lands with a thud. Haven’t we been sickened by the hypocrisy of that speech for the better part of a decade now? Of course, the deceptions that occurred in the run-up to the war and the first weeks after the invasion are no less outrageous in 2010 than they were in 2003. But seven years into the Iraq quagmire, we need more from our political filmmakers than an angry fist (and a hand-held camera) shaken in the Bush administration’s direction.
Damon’s conversations with Gleeson touch on a post-Iraq invasion story that, had Greengrass taken the time with it, would have made for a better movie: the impact of the disastrous decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and police forces, creating a huge underclass of unemployed and disgruntled men with a motive to rise up against the occupying forces. As documented in both Chandrasekaran’s book and Thomas Ricks’ remarkable Fiasco, the factors that went into turning our mission in Iraq into such a nightmarish debacle were enormously complex. To suggest that a lone, brave soldier could have set things right with a little amateur sleuthing seems like cinematic wish-fulfillment, an insult both to the intelligence of viewers and to the troops who, years after learning the truth about WMD in Iraq, are still living with the consequences of the Bush administration’s chicanery.
Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:
One wonders just how The Paul Greengrass Experience can be improved upon. For the last half-decade — from United 93 through The Bourne Ultimatum/Supremacy– Greengrass has developed a very specific aesthetic: super shaky cam, like Blair Witch on ‘roids. And, to his credit, it occasionally works. The opening sequence of Green Zone, for example, perfectly captures the insanity of shock and awe from the perspective of Iraqis dealing with American ordinance, one would assume: Head-snapping explosions; chaotic action from all corners; no real sense of continuity. Greengrass does a fine job of simulating chaos.
But why stop with rapidly twirling camera perspectives? Why not import The Paul Greengrass Experience 2.0 to theaters across the country? Instead of allowing the screen to simulate a flash-bang grenade, why not toss actual flash-bangs into packed houses? Instead of allowing the camera’s rapid movements to simulate the herky-jerky movements in the moment, why not have someone grab the audience’s heads and literally shake them silly? Motion sickness is all well and good: Why not instill some actual sickness? If Greengrass’s goal is to institute a sense of debilitating uncertainty in the audience why not go all the way with it?
Let’s not get hung up on questions of capability: If we can implement full, Avatar-style 3D, we can certainly implement The Paul Greengrass Experience in its entirety, or at least a close simulacrum of its entirety. Vomiting audience members notwithstanding, something would certainly be gained.
Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:
Obviously if you’re not a fan of Greengrass’ patented shaky-cam style then you’d do well to avoid Green Zone, but if you enjoyed both of his Bourne movies then you’ll most certainly enjoy this. The action, energy, and intensity are all working in top form as the movie hits the ground running and rarely lets up for air. The film’s major accomplishment is that it takes a historical situation… the search for WMD’s in Iraq that we all know ended in failure… and still manages to make a suspenseful film around it. We know Miller won’t find anything but we’re caught up in his frantic and pulse-racing search anyway.
Just as divisive as Greengrass’ camera style will be the film’s obvious political slant. There are definite bad guys here, and not all of them are Iraqi… spoiler alert (but not really), the US government lies. Some people will take the movie’s plot turns as blatant liberal propaganda when in reality it’s simply dramatic fodder that has been in use as long as there have been political thrillers. Accusations of a leftist agenda in Green Zone are lazy commentaries from the unimaginative always in search of a liberal whipping post. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t repeat its message that America lied a few too many times… But seriously, the US government was also behind 9/11 and AIDS.
There are some legitimate issues with Green Zone though. For one thing Miller is able to acquire answers at an alarmingly simple rate. Obviously he works for some of it, but often he simply has to ask. He needs information, and Gleeson’s CIA director pops into frame with the essential piece. He needs some more, and Ryan’s Wall Street Journal reporter is ready to reveal it. I realize the film is trying to tell a story in a tight and heightened time frame, but if it were that easy this could have actually happened. The other issue is more of a quibble, but the pace of the action and story is so fast that we never get the chance to really get to know Miller. He’s an honest and concerned patriot from frame one and spends the entire film fulfilling that role, but we never learn a single thing about him. You could argue that we’re learning about him through his actions, but a little backstory to humanize a character is never a bad thing.
Khalid Abdalla does a fantastic job as a concerned Iraqi citizen who provides Miller with information and then gets dragged along for the remaining ride. He puts a human face to an otherwise generic populace, and he also gets to deliver the movie’s best and most honest line. You’ll know it when you hear it (it’s the last thing he says). The other actor who deserves credit here is Damon himself. You wouldn’t think to look at him that he could command the respect required as an action star (especially after seeing him in The Informant!) but he does a fantastic job of it time and again. He’s believable in his actions and his sincerity, and he once again grounds what could have easily become a more generic exercise in gunfire and explosions.
Green Zone is a solid action film that wants to dig a little deeper into historical relevance than most others in the genre. Does it accomplish that at the expense of some questionable truths? Most certainly, but first and foremost the movie is out to entertain, and in that regard it succeeds brilliantly. We all know what happened over the past seven years, maybe not all of the details, but enough to know that not everything was as it once seemed. Certain “facts” were accepted too easily by a frightened and unmotivated American people, and the movie posits that somewhere out there someone actually cared enough to stand up against our democratically elected overlords. To paraphrase another film with a vaguely similar theme… Miller isn’t the hero America deserved. He’s the hero America needed.
John J. Miller at The Corner
David Germain at The Huffington Post:
There’s barely a story to hold “Green Zone” together, the movie just hurtling through firefights and chases, pausing for breath with the occasional revelation to prod Miller on in his quest.
For pure ambiance, “Green Zone” is a marvel. Though shot in Morocco, Spain and England, the action feels as though it takes place in the heart of Baghdad.
Greengrass, who directed Damon in “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” applies similar techniques – darting camera work, quick cutting, haphazard framing – to create the same sense of documentary immediacy in “Green Zone.”
Only the barest traces of the occupation absurdities revealed in Chandrasekaran’s book remain. Poundstone’s remark that “Democracy is messy” is a faint echo of the Donald Rumsfeld observation that “freedom’s untidy,” while the filmmakers toss in a few glimpses of the blind luxury enjoyed in the safe American Green Zone while Iraqis clamor for water and loot buildings outside.
Chandrasekaran’s book is a work of sharp, informative journalism. That “inspired by” credit sounds a little insulting when the result is tired, standard action fare such as “Green Zone.”
UPDATE #4: Big Hollywood
Ross Douthat in NYT
Daniel Larison on Douthat
UPDATE #5: Larison responds to Douthat
UPDATE #6: John Schwenkler at The American Scene
Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist