‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’ That’s a fantastic saying, one which frequently proves to be true. When it comes to film however, a filmmaker’s decision to stay the course with the typical themes, stories and cinematic styles he or she is known for could come back to haunt them. After all, it is nice to see some variety every once in a while. In the case of English director Paul Greengrass and his Bobby DeNiro, Matt Damon, the time for him to explore new movie horizons has not yet come. He’s still great at what he does.
Employing the shaky cam style/ quick editing he masterfully constructed the latter two Jason Bourne films with, he and star actor Matt Damon team up again to tell audiences another story involving shady U.S. government wheeling and dealing. This time they turn back the clock (so to speak) to 7 years ago, in March of 2003. Roy Miller (Damon) and his team form a special unit of WMD investigators. In essence, they receive intelligence about the presumed locations of stockpiles of various deadly bombs and chemical materials, travel to said locations and confirm or deny the existence of those weapons. The strange thing is, time and time again Miller’s team has been coming up empty, and it isn’t because they perform their searches in the wrong places. No, Millar rightfully suspects that the actual intel which higher ranking officials are providing is bogus. Along with a journalist and a CIA data analyst, Roy Miller chooses to follow his own path and learn the truth about the American military’s source of information.
Tackling such subject matter is dicey for one significant reason: very generally speaking, the audience knows what happens. The Iraq war and the many debates and politicking which led to its initiation have been made known to everyone the world over, not to mention that the raging arguments about the legality of such a war and what factual or fabricated evidence existed to engage in combat took place only a quaint 7 years ago. Spoilers for history: the war is still raging on. Matt Damon doesn’t prevent the Iraq war in Green Zone. It becomes crucial for the filmmakers to create suspense, action and a credible tale through other means than a ‘protagonist must prevent a war from starting’ plotline, because that probably wouldn’t do. So if the macro doesn’t work, then go for the micro, which is precisely the approach adopted by Greengrass and company in this fairly thrilling hunt for an infamous and mysterious source of intel known only as Magellan.
My immersion into the film was not immediate, mind you. The qualities of the movie are strikingly reminiscent of last year’s The Hurt Locker (reviewed here), another Iraq war film which followed American soldiers who dealt with weapons of mass destruction of a certain kind (they formed a bomb diffusion unit) and which made heavy use of what is now known as ‘shaky cam’ cinematography. I was afflicted with a slight sense of ‘been there, done that’ uneasiness in the early stages of the film. It was the quintessential Greengrass immediacy that thrust my attention into this deadly and treacherous world in the streets and alleyways of Baghdad. He’s a director who enjoys taking just a little bit of time to set up all the elements for the ride to come so everyone knows who is who and what they are doing here, and then he lights the biggest match you’ve ever seen when the suspense kicks in. Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and now Green Zone are all graced with this up tempo method of storytelling. It’s an intense style that requires expert control of editing and cinematography because, if used improperly, it can become an utter mess. I can only fathom the amount of time spent in the editing room for this man’s films, but I tip my hat to him and his team for creating lively action sequences that, while characterized by a certain messy quality, nonetheless retain coherency. If I may share a gripe, it would be in the late stages of the movie, during which time an extended and elaborate chase sends our protagonists and antagonists through buildings and streets at night. Most of the intense moments in Green Zone benefit from natural sun light, which I have to assume comes to the assistance of the shaky camera cinematography. At night, especially when the chase is occurring in tight spaces, it became a tad difficult to follow. It never became an incomprehensible thankfully, but there were some brief moments when I wasn’t sure how Damon got to where he was and where exactly the antagonists were heading, this despite that fact that there is a helicopter team following them from above with radar assistance.
Greengrass also shows tremendous deft at handling the intercutting of scenes in offices or bureau’s with those that transpire in the dust filled sweaty streets of downtown Baghdad. Because events and scenes are moving along at such a brisk pace, the editing choices required precision and attention so viewers don’t lose themselves among this apparent cacophony of sights and sounds. Film editing is an art that’s equally if not more important than cinematography. Greengrass and his crack team are without question up to the task yet again.
A peculiarity that should be pointed out is Matt Damon’s screen presence. There was a bit less depth to his character, Roy Miller, than I had anticipated. His raison d’être can be boiled down to questioning the same weapons hunting methods that most of us observing the real life events 7 years ago questioned. He’s a soldier and wears the American flag on his sleeve, but has a conscious in that he’ll only go along for the ride if his country is at war for the right reasons. It’s not a role for which a great amount of originality went into the writing, but there is an honesty and even a ferocity to Damon’s performance that is more than welcomed. It’s a case where the actor adds as much as he can to his role to make up for what I assume lacked on the page. Brendan Gleeson, as a senior CIA agent, hides his British accent in a decent performance, although nothing to shout about. Greg Kinear, an actor I always enjoy seeing, is also fine as the slimy high ranking official fighting for the U.S. interests. It was interesting to see some scenes featuring only Iraqi characters speaking purely in Arabic, a bit of respect to the home team after all. Unsurprisingly though, many of the Iraqi characters pretty much remain random Arab faces throughout the film.
Because we know that there is only one way the ‘bigger picture’ of the story can end, Green Zone contents itself with a fast paced plot in which characters are mostly just going from point A to point Z in a wild chase to either reveal or cover up the truth, one that audiences, if familiar with recent historical events, are already informed of. In that respect it is a bit of a strange viewing experience. The action is properly intense and well executed, there are some fine actors giving decent performances and the setting is appropriately exotic and dangerous. Having said that, there can’t possibly be any surprises for the audiences, so the enjoyment must rest in the experience of the hunt, not the story. Greengrass wears his politics on his sleeve, which some might not appreciate, but in the case of Green Zone’ s story setting, there’s no controversy. After all, there were no WMDs hidden anywhere. It’s not as though there’s a debate raging about that till this day.
I don’t predict Green Zone will retain the attention and imagination of movie goers as dramatically as some of Greengrass’ previous work. It’s a fun ride, it has its moments and it makes for a solid outing at the theatre, but in the wake of The Hurt Locker ’s Cinderella success story, Green Zone, at least until something else comes out, is the second best Iraq war film.