Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Green Zone

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movie Review: Green Zone

by Tony Dayoub


Nothing gets my back up more than seeing a movie oversimplify the facts to promote a political agenda. Green Zone, the latest by the Bourne team of director Paul Greengrass (United 93) and Matt Damon (Invictus), does just that. It is the most simple-minded example of progressive propaganda to come out from Hollywood since The Deer Hunter (1979).


Green Zone reduces the pivotal inciting incident for the prolonged Iraq War to the fate of an enemy general who knows too much about the truth behind Saddam Hussein's WMD program. Army Chief Roy Miller (Damon) is drawn into finding the general by a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) after repeatedly failing to find any WMDs on the ground. Meanwhile, Miller is trying to keep a reporter (Amy Ryan) and a mercenary (Jason Isaacs) at bay. The efforts by an unctuous Pentagon official (Greg Kinnear) to shut the general up in order to deliberately mislead the American public ironically follows the same pattern the movie does in perpetrating its own plan of winning hearts and minds—dress it up with smoke and mirrors, but keep the program simple.

Greengrass executes some pretty fine setpieces. I've never been one of those critical of his particular brand of stunt stylization. His fast-paced crosscutting and shaky handheld camerawork have proven to be a noxious influence on a new generation of directors who don't have his grasp of cinematic choreography, often leading to muddled, confusing scenes. But Greengrass himself always seems to come through, and in Green Zone he does it amazingly well in some low-light situations.

But it's all done in service to a lousy script by Brian Helgeland, full of clumsy platitudes. I paraphrase: one Iraqi character tells Miller, "You do not make decisions for our country." Another, the conflicted general, says, "You think Washington is going to really want to hear the truth?" And Damon's Miller is a self-righteous do-gooder who decides to go off the grid in an effort to uncover the truth, something which seems so antithetical to this by-the-book military operative that it is laughable.

As many of you know, my own political leanings are considerably left of center. So you would think I'd be tolerant if a film plays towards my politics. But I prefer arguments to be made with some credibility. Simply making loaded pronouncements with authority is not sufficient. Some would say that's how we got into this Iraq quagmire in the first place. In fact, this film says so. Even Greengrass' expert escalation of tension over the course of the film is not involving enough to disguise the bias of this interpretation of the events leading up to Iraq's insurgency. It's like the only source material they used was Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). By the time we get to a scene where Miller meets Gleeson's CIA operative poolside at Saddam's palace with Intelligence and Pentagon officials relaxing in tanktops and bikinis while carrying AK-47s, it really gets absurd.

It's also difficult to ignore the agitprop aspect to the marketing of Green Zone. Three different times I tuned into MSNBC today, as we liberals are usually wont to do. And all three times, I saw ads running for Green Zone, surprising because of the usual dearth of movie commercials on "the place for politics." Universal owns MSNBC, a left-leaning channel. Universal is also the studio behind Green Zone. You figure it out.

Don't get me wrong, it's not Green Zone's assertions that I have a problem with. It's the thinly veiled, smug, self-congratulatory way it goes about promoting them that I find revolting.

Green Zone opens nationwide Friday, March 12th.

23 comments:

J.D. said...

This is a bummer. I just watched Damon and Greengrass on Charlie Rose last night and they came across as very eloquent on the kind of the film they were trying to make but I guess it got lost in the translation somewhere. Hmm... I think I'll still check it out, though.

Patrick said...

Greengrass's shaky cam does bug me, I much preferred The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman) to the next two, plus I'm a bit right of center, so that's 3 strikes on that movie. (being a lefty movie is two strikes.) Kyle Smith has been very critical of this one and goes so far as to call it anti-American. If you don't like it and he doesn't like it, doesn't seem to leave much of a fan base.

Tony Dayoub said...

@J.D.,

I saw the same interview. By all means, check it out. But caveat emptor.

@Patrick,
Can't say I agree with you on THE BOURNE IDENTITY. I found it was a bad start to a series that turned out to be highly influential. 24, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III, and CASINO ROYALE all felt obliged to follow in the footsteps of Greengrass.

As for GREEN ZONE, I wouldn't go so far as to call it anti-American. But who are they trying to convince? Conservatives aren't going to buy into this lazy attempt to change their minds. Liberals already agree with much of what's being said here despite the film's shoddy oversimplification. So is the movie simply patting itself on the back for taking a stand 7 years too late?

Sandy M said...

I saw this movie last night at a press screening and your article articulates my feelings exactly. It felt like someones political agenda was being shoved down my throat. I don't have a problem with that if that is how the movie was advertised...but when they try to pass it off as a Bourne-type movie you just end up feeling as if you were hoodwinked. Thumbs down for me.

J.D. said...

J. Hoberman over at the VOICE sums it up quite well:

"As black and white as Helgeland's script is, the movie may still be too nuanced for mass consumption. As Damon's idealism merges with realpolitik, the ultimate issue is whether to deal or not with a Ba'athist general. In the end, though, action trumps logic. Damon's two-fisted, patriotic mega-rogue boy-scout-cum-investigative-soldier is a far less likely figure than the thrill-crazy hero of The Hurt Locker—grabbing Kinnear by his collar and hissing, "Do you have any idea what you've done here!?" while Ryan stands by wincing in shame. That kiss-off is a bonanza of false consolation that transports the movie into the fantasy zone of Inglourious Basterds."

Tony Dayoub said...

@Sandy,

I don't have a problem with that if that is how the movie was advertised...but when they try to pass it off as a Bourne-type movie you just end up feeling as if you were hoodwinked.

As I said, the film's politics completely line up with mine. But it's method of engaging in the debate undermines the point it is trying to make... which I think stands up quite well on its own.

@J.D.,

That is a beautifully written summation by Hoberman.

As black and white as Helgeland's script is, the movie may still be too nuanced for mass consumption.

I interpret the above to mean that despite its seeming obviousness to those who are intellectually engaged with current events, the film may mislead those who aren't because of it's docudrama style of placing you in the middle of the action. If that is what Hoberman is implying with the word "nuanced," I completely agree.

J.D. said...

Tony:

I interpreted Hoberman's comments to mean what you said. Unless you deliver your message with sledgehammer effect a la Oliver Stone (whose films I really dig) you risk going over the heads of most mainstream audiences. Well, we shall see if Damon and Greengrass can break the Iraq war film curse this weekend.

Adam Zanzie said...

Going to be checking this out- knowing how United 93 was adored by the right, it'll be interesting to see Greengrass making this sudden U-turn into the left.

I'm surprised you don't like The Deer Hunter though, Tony. No love for Cimino?

Tony Dayoub said...

I was contemplating the same thing about UNITED 93 vs. GREEN ZONE. But Greengrass is a pretty big leftie so I'd call UNITED 93 the anomaly.

I like Cimino (YEAR OF THE DRAGON is a favorite). But DEER HUNTER was a film that bought into some of the mythology of what was happening in Vietnam and tried to pass it off as truth. That Russian Roulette bullshit may be metaphorical on one level. But to let it sit after a hyperrealistic look at a steel town community (and an extended wedding sequence which only heightens the fly-on-the-wall aspect of the film) is the height of irresponsibility and misleading.

John Gray jgsheffield@hotmail.com said...

just (wales uk)

J.D. said...

What's odd about UNITED 93 is that I really didn't feel too much a political agenda with that film but rather it was almost a procedural mixed with a disaster film as Greengrass kept cutting back and forth between the air traffic controllers and the government trying to make sense of everything to the poor people stuck in the plane. What I liked about it was that Greengrass didn't try to get to rah-rah, gung ho with it as evident by the famous "roll with it" line spoken in almost hush tones.

Anonymous said...

"It is the most simple-minded example of progressive propaganda to come out from Hollywood since The Deer Hunter (1979)."

What's progressive about The Deer Hunter? It's been vilified by the Left for generations. It ends with a rousing chorus of "God Bless America" (without irony) for crying out loud.

That said, do you people really not get that there actually were no WMD's in Iraq? Do you really think the "truth" comes from the State Department and "propaganda" comes from art? It's the other way around, folks.

You and Armond White should get together.

Tony Dayoub said...

@J.D.,

You're right on the money with that assessment. Greengrass doesn't set out to make a movie to appease the right. But that didn't stop the right from lauding the film and its depiction of the tragedy.

@Anonymous,

From where I sit, I see a distinct sympathy for the idea that DEER HUNTER'S characters were betrayed by the patriotic dream they subscribed to before they were sent to war, best exemplified in De Niro's non-conversation with the soldier that just returned from the war in the early part of the film. That rendition of "God Bless America" seems as ironic to me as Springsteen's lament for Nam vets in the often misunderstood "Born in the USA."

Propaganda does not exist without some truth. And if you parse my review carefully, you'll see that I agree that the WMD excuse given by the Bush administration was a flimsy one.

HOWEVER, I believe that the fairy-tale simplification of having one soldier at the center of this quest for the truth, the continuation of the war pivoting on the survival of one general, and the trite dialogue used to deliver the film's thesis are hallmarks of propaganda. And as someone who prides himself on being both a liberal, and a writer who never underestimates his audience I found it lazy that the creative minds behind this movie couldn't work a little harder to lay out the facts in a more sophisticated manner. This reductive thriller ends up undermining the very argument it is trying to make, opening itself to criticism from not only those sympathetic towards its claims, but especially from those who wish to dismiss them.

Anonymous said...

More of the progressive's BS...I guess Greengrass conveniently left out all the Biological weapons they did find that IRAQ(Sadam)wasn't able to finish moving to Syria...since Amer forces only covered a fraction of Iraq’s land mass and they weren't willing to confront Syria...hmmm. Let me see I did not see the movie talk about the thousands of Iraq citizens killed that were left in mass grave sites by "Sadam the butcher." I guess the far left has totally lost touch with humanity...they could not comprehend such a butcher...since butchers are meant to be admired by our current administration who added their own favorite butcher as a "holiday ornament"…. chairman Mao...history's deadliest butcher of millions of Chinese….on their Whitehouse "holiday" tree back in December...nothing should surprise us. This movie just happen to be timed perfectly on the heels of the vote on Socialized healthcare..Get real...do they really think Americans are this stupid...get your facts straight Hollywood and stop the lies...Our American soldiers deserve better. Don't you all think they are tired of watching their fellow soldiers die for this country full of unappreciative nut jobs and have to watch crap like this! Our soldiers must be saying "why are we fighting for these ignorant people who clearly have zero respect for us."
God bless our soldiers you are in our prayers!

Anonymous said...

To the second Anonymous:
"I guess Greengrass conveniently left out all the Biological weapons they did find that IRAQ(Sadam)wasn't able to finish moving to Syria."

Boy howdy, pal. You are a hardcore moron.

Adam Zanzie said...

Why are you guys choosing to remaining "Anonymous", anyway? Just reveal your damn identities. It's not like we're gonna go burn down you house just because of your political leanings.

The Siren said...

My problem with The Deer Hunter, as a card-carrying member of the weenie lib left, is something that recurs throughout a lot of the cycle of Vietnam movies: a presumption that the war was all about what was done to us, rather than what we did to Vietnam. The Vietnamese characters in it, too, would not be out of place in a WW II Pacific theater film, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's extremely well-executed though, I must say. As I recall it was initially regarded as a hard-hitting anti-Vietnam screed but the attitude toward it has shifted over the years.

This was an excellent, thoughtful review that brings a lot to bear on the general problem of what to do with movies that play to your political sympathies, but not your sense of artistry.

Tony Dayoub said...

@The Siren,

My problem with The Deer Hunter, as a card-carrying member of the weenie lib left, is something that recurs throughout a lot of the cycle of Vietnam movies: a presumption that the war was all about what was done to us, rather than what we did to Vietnam. The Vietnamese characters in it, too, would not be out of place in a WW II Pacific theater film, and I don't mean that in a good way.

You make an excellent point about its portrayal of the Vietnamese which goes to the point I think the first Anonymous was trying to make here, "What's progressive about The Deer Hunter? It's been vilified by the Left for generations."

I'm as guilty of presuming the film "was all about what was done to us," as the filmmakers were. In truth, the film has always seemed of two political minds to me. As seen in the film, the characterization of the Vietnamese definitely promotes the worst kinds of stereotypes.

But I still can't let go of my assertion that Cimino stacks the deck inordinately high to gain our sympathy for the young Americans who ship off and end up betrayed by their patriotic aspirations.

Perhaps it is why I have always sensed a profound dissonance between the first and second halves of the movie. Thanks for your insight, Siren.

MovieMan0283 said...

Excellent takedown of the film, and great commentary here. It almost makes me regret my more ambivalent reaction but I have to be honest - I was torn between incredulity between Greengrass' chutzpah in re-writing history, and the resonance of seeing the Iraq war depicted on screen, not just in bits and pieces but in a whole, even if that whole went way off the rails by the end. That second reaction is actually more of an aesthetic reaction than a political one - I think I'd feel similarly even about a film which slanted more to the right.

Your points are all well-taken but I agree with the first Anon that The Deer Hunter's brand of mythologization is more right-wing than leftist: whatever its point about patriotism, the primary historical result of the made-up device (Russian Roulette) is to establish the brutality of the enemy (I can't remember if they were VC/National Liberation Front or North Vietnamese regulars - I think the former, all thoug the fact that it's indistinct may speak to the film's detriment - or that of my own memory, perhaps).

As for the second Anon, this is not at all atypical of thinking on the right, and is actually more nuanced and details than a lot of takes I've seen. I spent all weekend embroiled in intense debates on Big Hollywood, not so much about the movie - which kicked off the discussion - but about Bush's culpability for the execution of the occupation, and the error of the decision to go to war. Some of the people there were absolute cretins, the worst I've ever encountered on a movie board (surprise surprise, because it's more a political board than a movie one). But I also engaged with illuminating and reasonable discussions with some Bush apologists and/or conservatives who recognized his flaws but felt they were overstated.

Long and short of it is, this movie just gives more ammo to the argument that opponents of the invasion and the conduct of the occupation (as distinct from opponents of the occupation itself, btw, however much some may overlap) have to lie and exaggerate to make their case. This was the presumption of John Nolte's original review on that site, which is what I took issue with in the first place.

Anyway, the discussion around the film is fascinating and it was a memorable experience to both watch and later debate the movie. I value it for that, whatever its undeniable drawbacks and failures.

Your review has been linked up on my site.

(Btw, I could never figure out if that villain was supposed to be a merc. I thought he was but at times they seemed to play it as if they were soldiers. If so, it is both a more defensible portrayal and even more of a laughablly gross over-simplification, as if soldiers and mercenaries were duking it out on the battlefield; the lines were not drawn that clearly, to my understanding."

MovieMan0283 said...

Yikes, quite a few grammatical errors in the above comment. Posted in haste - apologies.

MovieMan0283 said...

Wow, you reviewed this back on the 10th! Late to the party...

Tony Dayoub said...

I think you may be right about Isaacs being a soldier rather than a merc. His characterization and physical makeup seemed too extreme for me to believe he was a soldier, but I think I saw someone somewhere refer to the character as Lt. So-and-so.

Thanks for commenting, MovieMan.

The Siren said...

I am always late to the party, it's part of my charm.