Saturday, August 21, 2010

Green Zone

On August 19th, 2010, the Iraq War officially came to the most awkward and anticlimactic end in the history of American combat operations. It would be easy for the layman to entirely miss the fact that this even happened, both because 50,000 troops are remaining as a peacekeeping and training force until December 31st, 2011 and because the news made the tiniest blip imaginable in the media, spending all of a few hours on CNN's front page before quietly vanishing. The simple truth of the matter is that no one wants to talk or think about the Iraq War anymore — in fact, the war's most aggressive initial supporters seem today like the people who least want to acknowledge that any such war ever existed, which is understandable, because I'd be ashamed too.

But the Iraq War did happen, and Bourne Supremacy / Bourne Ultimatum / United 93 director Paul Greengrass made a movie about it called Green Zone, and the movie kind of bombed, making $35 million domestic on a $100 million budget, because no one wants to think about the Iraq War. "But wait!" you might say, "wasn't The Hurt Locker a hit?" And the answer is no, The Hurt Locker was not a hit. It made $16.4 million in America, enough to recoup its budget, but it was only a hit amongst critics and awards shows. In the grand scheme of things only about 1% of Americans saw it, because no one in America wants to think about the Iraq War, even in the context of an apolitical action thriller like Locker.

Green Zone's an even harder sell, because Green Zone is very political. Unless you focus entirely on a specific soldier like Locker did, it's nigh impossible for an Iraq War movie not to be very political. Maybe one day some filmmaker will make an uber-patriotic Iraq War movie where America rolls into Iraq to defeat the supervillain Saddam Hussein, conquers his armies and henchman, kills him in a badass hanging, then immediately rolls out and back home set to heavy metal music, but I'd say we're a good twenty years away from such brilliantly jingoistic revisionist history. For now we're stuck with uncomfortable flicks about how we went to war for oil and there never were any WMDs and our government lied to us like Green Zone.

But unlike Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, where the liberal propaganda stuck out like an awkward and boring sore thumb, Greengrass actually manages to mix it into a fairly muscular action-adventure thriller reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Body of Lies. Shootouts and explosions aplenty, good guys and bad guys, lots of excitement and whiteknuckle tension.

It's 2003, and Matt Damon is in full-blown wooden badass mode as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, like Jason Bourne but with less backstory and more political convictions, who becomes angry after taking his men into dangerous warzone after dangerous warzone to find WMDs that never quite seem to turn up. So with the aid of a journalist played by Amy Ryan and a CIA officer played by Brendan Gleeson (a terrific and versatile Irish actor who in this movie proves to have one weakness: the American accent) Roy Miller does some investigation and winds up in a race against Pentagon Special Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinear) to reach an Iraqi general who can confirm that there were no WMDs before Poundstone has him assassinated.

The performances get the job done and nothing more except for Khalid Abdalla as Freddy, an Iraqi who through circumstance winds up becoming Miller's impromptu translator and who really engages us in his people's desperation, and Jason Isaacs as Poundstone's stooge Maj. Briggs. I've seen Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy in lots of Harry Potter movies and of course as the Satanesque British commander Colonel Tavington in The Patriot, so it speaks to his skill as an actor that I absolutely did not recognize him at all underneath his facial hair and flawless American accent. When his name rolled by in the end credits I was like, "wait, what?" That's a real actor right there.

The film's action elements inevitably pale next to the sheer intensity of The Hurt Locker, but while I wouldn't say this film is as good as that one it's still pretty darn good. A bit preachy, perhaps, if you consider pointing out utterly objective facts like that there never were any WMDs to be preachy, but it manages to mix its liberal fanfiction with enough Bourne that it stands up as a worthwhile work. I'm willing to bet based on its weak box office reception that we won't be seeing too many more Iraq War movies, at least not for a while, so you got plenty of time to catch up on the few worthwhile ones (i.e. The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, The Messenger, and Body of Lies).

3 Stars out of 5

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