Filmmakers are often praised for staying within a pristine, original aesthetic. Take Alfred Hitchcock, for example. His style was so definitive, so easy to identify and appreciate that he actually helped established the boundaries of the famed French “auteur theory”. Tim Burton is another name that rarely strays from his own unique goof Goth grandeur. Sometimes, directors excel when they leave their specific comfort zone. King of the blockbuster Steven Spielberg got little respect in the industry he helped build until he dropped the eye candy wonder and delved deep in the Holocaust with his pseudo-documentary designed Schindler’s List. But for the most part, today’s cinematic stalwarts are genre hoppers, moving from sci-fi to comedy to kids flicks with an abandon that suggests they’re more interested in working than establishing some explicit creative credentials.
Paul Greengrass is different. The British director, best known for his work on the fabulously successful Bourne films as well as the excellent 9/11 thriller United 93, only knows one approach. Call it “participatory bystander” or a “you are right there” POV, but his handheld camera conceits with their shaky, immersive elements, have been his signature since the beginning. For a while, many considered it to be groundbreaking, a way of combining the old world classicism of Hollywood action with a New Age need to be more interactive and video game savvy. Somewhere in the middle lies what Greengrass does best. But with his latest release, the pointless Iraq War film Green Zone, his visual entertainment earthquake begins to show some cracks. Even worse, the story it tells is so well known by the more learned members of the citizenry that it seems pointless to bring it all up again.
By now, it’s a given that we went to war in the Middle East under the questionable directives of some equally suspect intelligence. Saddam had nothing to do with the World Trade atrocities, there was no clear link between the country and Al-Qaida, and there definitely were no “WMDs” – weapons of mass destruction. So any movie that uses the fact that the Bush Administration lied about wanting to locate and dismantle any caches of said chemical, biological, or nuclear arms, the offers such ‘facts’ as the main mystery to uncover and gasp over, is already going to feel antiquated and out of touch. Now add in the fact that Greengrass is once again doing a seismic scale shudder action thriller and has brought Matt “Bourne” Damon along with him, and the resulting effort truly feels like a retread of a redundancy.
Our steely star is Roy Miller, a chief warrant officer leading a team of WMD detectives in and around Baghdad. It’s been mere months since the US invaded, and reports from a top secret source named ‘Magellan’ indicates the country is crawling with nukes and other similarly nasty artillery. Unfortunately, every location Miller infiltrates to explore, he finds nothing. Angry that his actions are leading to nothing but casualties and wasted time, he confronts his superiors, and then the government’s main man on the ground, bureaucrat Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). When they are not willing to listen, he hooks up with CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleason) and Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) to get some answers. What he finds out is unsettling – the Americans may be purposefully altering information supplied by a former Iraqi General (Yigal Noar). It is up to Miller to find the elusive military man and bring him in. Maybe then, the truth will finally be revealed.
Green Zone is further proof that not every distinctive example of directing flair is a universal fit. It’s hard to see Tarseem making All the President’s Men, for example. Even though Greengrass has made effective use of the jitter-lens look for both a reinvention of the spy genre and an intense docudrama-like look at history, somehow, the creative concept doesn’t really work here. Wired whistler-blowers turned belligerent ass-kickers seem almost antithetical to the story the film wants to tell (think The Insider with Jason Statham instead of Russell Crowe), and by putting the incredibly recognizable face of your post-modern espionage franchise front and center, you are simply begging for bad comparisons. As a result, Green Zone feels like under-baked Bourne, delivering none of the jerryrigged James Bond thrills we’ve come to expect. Sure, the action is solid, but the rest of the narrative wants to acknowledge brains, not brawn.
The script by Oscar winner Bryan Helgeland is partially taken from a non-fiction tome about the search for (and eventual lack thereof) of WMDs in the months after the Iraq invasion, and the anti-Bush sentiments are strong. We get the infamous aircraft carrier announcement of “Mission Accomplished” as a backdrop to one telling scene and throughout, Kinnear’s character is viewed as the most miserable, mealy-mouthed type of dangerous pencil pusher. But the conclusion is already obvious, the subject of years of ongoing FOX News vs. the rest of the world debate. If there were no WMDs, what is Damon’s character going to find? Will he be a pawn in a bigger propaganda push? Will he die trying? Does it have something to do with a crystal skull and a long dormant alien race? Green Zone lends itself to such speculative superficialities. Instead of teaching us about life in the Iraq trenches, it becomes a BBC series with ballistics.
The balance is completely off here as well, Greengrass spending far more time chasing insurgents and hostiles down bombed out neighborhoods and allies than setting up his supporting players. We get Kinnear’s motives – he wears them on his sleeve like a Neo-Con Medic-Alert bracelet. Gleason and Ryan on the other hand are ciphers, cogs in a plotpoint machine that never locates an efficient way to use them. They are really just around so that Damon has someone to soapbox with, to furrow his brow over and gnash teeth towards. Even the local citizen who becomes Miller’s inadvertent translator seems like a set-up, an unnecessary bit of fussiness that adds little -that is, until the ending. Once the character reaches for a hidden gun in the backseat of his car, we instantly get where his story arc is headed.
The Bourne films function because they are unpredictable. Sure, the square-jawed Jason is always one step ahead of his captures and is never in a bind he can’t get himself out of. But in those films, and United 93, Greengrass traded on our anticipated reactions to revamp a dying cinematic type. He was aggressive and amped up with reason. Here, he plays directly into our beliefs and offers nothing new in getting there. This is chaos by the numbers, well acted and efficiently edited, but doing little more than rattling our reality before sitting back to sell us an already known bill of goods. That’s why another approach may have benefited Greengrass’ motives. Sticking with the same old strategy produces…the same old thing.
Which takes us back to the argument at the beginning. Green Zone clearly believes it can benefit from turning an already given exposition into something akin to a sideways installment of an already successful series. It actually hopes you think Robert Ludlum redux when you come to its overly familiar filmic facets. But that doesn’t mean it’s a successful bait and switch. For all its frayed nerve endings and vibrating visual finesse, there is nothing really new here – not in the narrative and certainly not behind the lens. Paul Greengrass has become iconic for the way in which he utilizes and understands the camera. Green Zone is a good example of the approach’s limitations, and as a result, his own celluloid shelf life.