Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Green Zone: Bourne Goes Baghdad

The best thing I can say about Green Zone is that I went to it on my own, and thus I didn't have to say something sheepish at the end about how I had hoped it would be better and I now realised that we should have checked out something else. John was too sick to go to the movies and I didn't have anything better to do, so I went to the movies on my own for the first time in I honestly don't know how long. Maybe a decade. In the days when I went to see nearly everything - the days before ubiquitous videotape - I saw a lot of movies on my own, but I had to rack my brains to come up with a recollection of what that was like.

Where does Green Zone go wrong, when all the signs and portents said it should have gone so right? It had Matt Damon, it had Paul Greengrass, it had Brian Helgeland. That last name, that's where it went wrong. Brian Helgeland wrote the script. That used to be a slam dunk no-brainer guarantee of quality; or so I stupidly thought until I went back over Helgeland's filmography and realised that it's been 13 years since LA Confidential and he's not exactly been living up to that since. Among his crimes against adaptation in the years since then; the unnecessary and crap remake of Pelham 123; the unnecessary and crap remake of Man on Fire; and the unnecessary film versions of The Postman and Blood Work. Also the unnecessary and crap remake of Payback, though your mileage may vary if you buy into the idea that it was ruined by Mel Gibson's meddling. In which case <farnsworth tag> GREAT NEWS EVERYONE <farnsworth tag> there's a director's cut and the two of you can go and watch it together.

In fairness to Helgeland, Imperial Life in the Emerald City is not the kind of book any sane person would try to turn into a movie, least of all an action movie. It's an episodic memoir of life in the madhouse that was Paul Bremer's experiment of destroying a country to make it profitable for his corporate backers, and if you were going to commit it to video, you'd do what they did with Generation Kill and make a HBO mini-series of it. Which no-one would watch, because there would be literally no-one to root for. I imagine that the sequence went something like this; read book; option book; spend three years trying to figure out how the hell you could make a commercial film out of it; give up and throw away both the title and the entire text of the book in favour of making an action movie with a political message.

Sam Goldwyn said it first; if you want to send a message, use Western Union. While they've been running around like Mrs O'Higgins' cow trying to figure out how to make Green Zone, the message has reached anyone interested enough in hearing it. For the two or three people who haven't heard, the US government made up all that stuff about Weapons of Mass Destruction. That's not a spoiler even for the movie, because that cat is let out of the bag about half way through. I suspect, however, that slightly more viewers were surprised by the events in Titanic than were surprised by the big reveal in Green Zone.

The political message that people might not have been expecting was the news that there are people living in Iraq who should have had a say in their own destiny and were completely ignored in favour of outsiders and their agendas. While this is an important point, it's not exactly news, and if I'd been looking for a way to make it, showing us how the US missed an opportunity to co-opt the Iraqi Army and the Baath party wouldn't have been in my top ten. Our main Iraqi viewpoint characters are Freddy (see below) and a bunch of senior Iraqi army officers and Baath party members with the collective huggability of a bag of plutonium snakes wrapped in barbed wire and battery acid. Your mileage may vary, but I'd be surprised if any of you even blink as they get shot a lot.

So on the political message; not really news, not really delivered in an interesting way. How does it work as an action movie? Again, the news ain't good. There isn't much action, and there isn't much of a sense of jeopardy. The characters don't draw you in, so it's hard to care much what happens to them. The best character in the whole thing is Freddy, the hapless Iraqi who drives the entire plot, and even he doesn't make a button of sense; there's never a moment when you feel you understand his motivation for what he's doing. The actor playing him does a good job of getting across a human being driven by fear and panic, but fear and panic aren't enough to get you to go find an American patrol, rat out an Iraqi general to them, and then sign on as their unpaid interpreter as they hunt down the general. There's probably a deleted scene somewhere that explains why all this seems like a good idea to Freddy, but why they took that out and left other stuff in, I have no idea.

I know it's fashionable to hate on Matt Damon, but I've never really rated him very highly as a performer. He seems to do his best work as characters who don't actually have personalities and are struggling to fake one; Bourne and Ripley and whatever the hell his character was called in the Departed. Whenever he's just playing an ordinary person, there's no there there. So his character Roy Miller runs around and gets upset about the way that the war has been fought on a lie. Since most of the population of planet earth has been upset about that since 2003, getting us to care about his little hissy fit is going to take a bit more than Matt Damon's blank line readings. And it's hard to care about him getting into hazard because he doesn't really get into much hazard.

The rest of the cast; most of them don't even have names; if you don't believe me, check out the cast list on IMDB and see how many of the speaking parts just have organisation descriptions. Although Matt Damon is supposed to be a team leader, you never get a sense of his team; and you never get any sense at all of his most dangerous opponent, some completely anonymous special ops guy and his even more anonymous team of operators. Quite how they managed to make the entire cast so uninvolving is beyond me, but it's a big chunk of what's wrong.

A word about the look; Greengrass likes to shoot as naturalistically as he can, but unfortunately this seems to work out as completely unnatural. Firstly, Greengrass likes jitter cam way more than is healthy. So most scenes in daylight are shot in juddering choppy takes which are naturalistic only if you're trying to show the viewpoint of an unmedicated epileptic working a road compactor during an earthquake in a roundabout factory. So quick word to Greengrass. Stop. In real life, our brains are very good at compensating for motion blur and rapid movement; shaking everything up makes things look more fake, not less. Which moves us on to night work; just light the damn scenes. Shooting with digital in extremely low light just makes for a muddy grainy reddish brown mush which doesn't look anything like darkness does in real life to dark adapted eyes and isn't even easy to look at. The tradtional somewhat overlit hollywood look is actually closer to how we see things in reality. It's a movie. Show us things. Or if that's too much work, try radio for a while.

As always when watching movies set in God's sandbox, I was wondering where they shot it all, and it turns out that they did the interiors in England and a surprising amount of the exteriors in Spain; the slummy bits of Baghdad were done in everyone's favourite sandbox stand in, Morocco (also starred in Black Hawk Down; I assume I was the only person in the world irritated by the fact that the sun was rising in the wrong place relative to the coastline for EAST Africa).

Two other things which bothered me. Firstly, the film has a Chelabi stand in; Ahmed Zubaidi is such a thinly disguised substitute for Ahmed Chelabi, I have no idea why they even begin to think that tweaking the name was going to protect them from a lawsuit. And there's a traditional and entirely unbelievable Hollywood ending in which Matt Damon's character goes public with his story. What makes it especially tin-eared in this context is that it's seven years down the road; we know that nothing like that happened and that even if it did, it didn't make a button of difference. A better film would have used that irony properly; Green Zone signs out on it as though somehow Miller has won and saved us all.

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