Thursday, March 18, 2010

Green Zone

Paul Greengrass is the director behind United 93, the first entry in the pantheon of mainstream Hollywood reactions to 9/11. That film was released in spring 2006, written and produced just four years-and-change after the attacks. At the time, there was an uproar. "How can we let Hollywood make movies out of this?" 9/11, we thought at one time or another, marked the death not only of 3,000 people but also of irony and the action movie. How the times have changed.

United 93 was one of the more fascinating moviegoing experiences I've had in my lifetime: I saw it in a very sold out house on opening night in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the remarkable things about United 93 is Greengrass' humanization of the four terrorists. He doesn't condone their actions, but he doesn't condemn them either. This is, partially, due to his shaky-cam aesthetic - getting into the heads of his characters just isn't his thing. He directs action movies. He was the perfect hired gun for the two Bourne sequels.

Now Columbus is, generally, a pretty liberal town. But that opening night crowd was, understandably, not interested in Ahmed al-Haznawi hesitating in the airplane bathroom while assembling the bomb. When the passengers ultimately rushed the terrorists in the cockpit, everyone started cheering and clapping. With conviction. But the heroism of the passengers onboard United 93 was not the point of that movie.

I'm remembering all this now because Green Zone is Greengrass' follow-up to the non-fiction scenario of United 93. Both films take a beginning and an end that are based on true events and connect them with speculative "inspired by" fictions. In Green Zone, the ending is the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But where Greengrass inadvertently mined pathos from the doomed characters in United 93, he's here more interested in straight-forward action/thriller heroics. And boy, does he fall on his face.

There are two big problems with the premise of the film. One is that its major statement is that we went to war under false pretenses - this will inevitably still rile some folks, but to this viewer it's nothing new. Two - and this is the big one, because even a well-constructed thriller with lame politics is better than a poorly-constructed thriller I "agree" with - is when that big reveal comes half an hour in.

The bulk of the running time doesn't involve Matt Damon discovering that the WMD-threat was a lie. It's about him trying to prove it. But even this goal proves unnecessary. Why go through several impressively-staged gun-fights and a kidnapping just to get the guy who can tell the press the truth when you can just tell the press yourself? Here, the press is personified by Amy Ryan, and Damon was already in her hotel room once (not for anything saucy, though that might've at least made the scene interesting).

In the end, it's a lot of ado over nothing, appropriately described early in the film when one character refers to Iraq as "full of anarchy". These guys are running around trying to find someone they don't need to prove something doesn't exist. It's dramatically inert even as I'm politically aligned with the filmmakers, leaving me with nobody to root for even if I wanted to. It's like watching a porn where the guy can't get it up. Whatever, I got the point anyway.

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