Green Zone(3/20/2010)

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For the last half decade I’ve felt like I’ve been on the defensive end of a number of arguments when it comes to political movies which deal with the war in Iraq.  The wide consensus is that these movies all too often sacrifice storytelling in favor of preachy messages and that the films suffer as a result.  Then last year, in something of an ironic twist, the critics I’d been opposing all suddenly got behind an Iraq movie (The Hurt Locker) which I wasn’t necessarily as enthusiastic about.  Make no mistake, I liked Kathryn Bieglow’s film a lot, but to me it wasn’t the transcendent war film that many held it up as.  The praise for that movie was characterized by two claims: 1. that the movie was refreshingly apolitical (as if that’s an inherently good thing), and 2. that the movie avoided the peachiness by focusing on its role as an action movie.  This second point was probably the most baffling part of the consensus that built around The Hurt Locker, because I frankly don’t think that movie is an action film, at least not any more of an action film than say, Platoon.  Perhaps the most notable thing about Paul Greengrasses new film Green Zone is that it most definitely is an action film and a significantly more exciting one that The Hurt Locker ever claimed to be.

The film is set in the very immediate aftermath of the March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, when the war certainly felt like an injustice, but at least like an injustice that would be successful in its dubious goals.  At the center of the movie is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), the Chief Warrant Officer in charge of a squad that’s looking for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  After many of the leads he was tracking down turned out not to have the weapons in question, Miller began to question the intelligence he’d been given.  So, instead he begins tracking down a General Al-Raw (Yigal Naor), a former Ba’athist that Miller thinks is aware of the location of the WMDs.  When a CIA agent named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) learns about this, he encourages Miller, believing that Al-Raw may help him convince a stubborn Pentagon official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) that he should keep the Iraqi military intact.  Unfortunately, Poundstone has other ideas and both Miller and Brown will need to increasingly bend the rule in order to find the truth.

The central goal of the film is to prevent the disbanding of the Iraqi Army.  It has been argued by many (perhaps most accessibly in the documentary No End in Sight) that this disbanding, more than any post-invasion decision, was responsible for turning Iraq into the quagmire that it became.  So, the stakes of the action on screen couldn’t be any higher.  That’s not where the parallels to the real world end either.  Many of the characters here are meant to be loosely fictionalized versions of real figures from the war.  Kinnear’s Clark Poundstone character is pretty clearly based on Paul Bremer, the man who disbanded the Iraqi army (and was subsequently given a medal by President Bush), a journalist played by Amy Ryan in the film is clearly based on the NYT correspondent Judith Miller, and there’s also a dubious intelligence source in the film codenamed “Magellan” which is based on a real figure which was codenamed “Curveball.”

This insertion of figures from our recent history will be jarring to some audiences, but I disagree.  I think what Greengrass has done is to use the cover of a fictional narrative in order to make a pretty interesting work of speculative non-fiction.  This is not too far removed from what Oliver Stone did in a number of his movies about 60s politics and which I wish he had done more of in his film W.  Much the way Stone would use his films to speculate about what people like Richard Nixon was saying behind closed doors, Greengrass is speculating about the machinations involved in a post-invasion Iraq.  Of course, the speculative aspects of Green Zone don’t need to stray all that far from what is already known.  The truth is, very few of the claims being made in the film are all that controversial.  Are there really still Bush loyalists trying to pretend that there were WMDs in Iraq?  Or that disbanding the Iraqi army was a good idea?  I don’t think there are many, nor do I think there are very many people who will be overly shocked by the revelations here, but the way they are presented here make them far more accessible and exciting than they ever have been before.

Paul Greengrass made his name among critics with kinetic films about real world crises like Bloody Sunday and United 93, and he made his name as a commercial filmmaker by bringing a similarly immediacy to mainstream action films like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne UltimatumGreen Zone marks something of a combination of these two sides of Greengrass’ career, it has real world significance but it’s also unafraid to add visceral action to the proceedings, especially towards the end where we’re treated to an extended foot chase through Bagdad as witnessed both on the ground and above head by pursuing helicopters.  This action does not delve into the realms of the ridiculous, there are no signature stunts ala Bourne and the hero is decidedly more mortal than the title character of that franchise.  The action here is significantly more active than the suspenseful, but static, bomb defusing scenes from The Hurt Locker and to me, are much closer to the tradition of the action film.

I was also really impressed by the depiction of Iraq itself, which seemed really authentic, though admittedly I’ve never been to the place and obviously don’t have any real experience to base this judgment on.  The titular Green Zone itself was particularly interesting; this was a secure area of Bagdad in which the majority of the high ranking officers, intelligence agents, and media figures were stationed.  This area at times looks like a resort, complete with people sitting by a pool.  The whole scene is reminiscent of the English base at Cairo depicted in Lawrence of Arabia and is meant to contrast the war zone that surrounds it.  This oasis amidst chaos was the main setting of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” upon which Greengrass’ film is based, and it’s one of the film’s most interesting aspects.

I enjoyed Green Zone quite a bit both on as a fan of action films and as someone who’s interested in recent history.  That said, there are a few sort of clunky lines in the film that fit into some of the complaints people have been having about “preachy Iraq movies,” there’s a line towards the end spoken by an Iraqi that is particularly egregious.  I can’t say that this has the same resonance of something like United 93 (though very few movies do) and it isn’t quite the action onslaught that the Bourne films were, but this is still the work of an important filmmaker and not one to be taken for granted.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Ghost Writer(3/10/2010)

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The Ghost Writer is a low key thriller of the type one wouldn’t expect to be made by a director as distinguished as Roman Polanski, and the film’s release has been similarly low key.  Perhaps this is only being seen in a few theaters because this is a film targeted at adults, an audience that has become increasingly hard to market to, perhaps it’s because the film has been pretty hard to cut a trailer to without giving away a number of key plot points, or perhaps it’s because of the negative publicity its director has been getting because of his legal battles.  I hesitated to even bring that last point up, firstly because the film’s advertising hasn’t really been hiding the fact that the Chinatown auteur is behind the film and secondly because I think Polanski’s work deserves to be appreciated outside of the shadow of his personal shortcomings.  On the other hand, one of the most interesting things about this newest film is how aspects of the story mirror that turbulent personal story.

The film is about an author played by Ewan McGregor who’s so anonymous that his name is never revealed over the course of the movie.  The character is smart but seems to have minimal ambition and no political beliefs.  This anonymity makes the character the perfect ghost writer and within his field he hits the jackpot when he’s asked to help write the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see that Lang was loosely based on Tony Blair, he was a popular leader, but one who seemed to be married to the United States in relation to foreign policy during the war on terror and he’d come under especially tough scrutiny for handing over four alleged terrorists to be tortured for information.  Since the movie seems to take place in a world where such behavior is actually punished, he may be tried by the Haig for his actions.  In order to escape the protests (and possible extradition), he’s escaped to a house in Martha’s Vineyard.  The ghost writer says that he isn’t an investigative reporter and that he only wants to tell Lang’s story as Lang wants to tell it, but as he digs deeper he finds that there’s a secret out there which could shine a light on this world leader’s motives.

The central theme of Polanski’s work is undeniably paranoia, justifiable paranoia.  Perhaps the film of his with the most emblematic and accessible expression of this theme is Rosemary’s Baby, a film in which a woman thinks her neighbors are conspiring to do her harm… and it turns out they were.  This paranoid sensibility is perfect for the political thriller genre, a genre that’s almost defined by paranoia of this kind.  That said, the Polanski film that this most reminds me of is not a political thriller but rather a supernatural thriller: The Ninth Gate. That late nineties Johnny Depp vehicle is not particularly well remembered but, it was a pretty good but it was a pretty good bit of genre filmmaking and Polanski’s sensibilities made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been.  That was another film about an unassuming man who stumbled onto a deep secret and kept hunting it down while besieged by people more knowledgeable about it than he does, and both of the films end on almost identical notes.

Oh, and this theme of paranoia was established long before Polanski became an international fugitive, which is something that isn’t known for quashing paranoia.  His personal woes (which I won’t bother to recount here, Google it if you don’t know) seem to really parallel the life of the Prime Minister character.  This is a character that’s been forced to stay in the United States or face charges; it’s an almost perfect parallel to Polanski’s situation in which leaving France would lead to extradition.  Polanski’s extradition, also meant that the film couldn’t be filmed in the story’s Massachusetts location, and yet the film also has a really good sense of location.  Even though the movie was filmed in Germany, they did a pretty good job of making it look like America, which is important because this foggy New England atmosphere adds a lot to the movie.

The acting from McGregor was solid, but like his character, not particularly noteworthy.  I also liked Olivia Williams in the role of the Prime Minister’s wife, but it’s Pierce Brosnan’s work that I found particularly memorable.  I wouldn’t say that Brosnan’s actual acting was anything to really write home about, but I think his choice to play this role was a particularly nice piece of casting.  Brosnan looks like he could be a election phenomenon and he brings a certain unapologetic cockiness that seems to characterize post-Gitmo politics.

It’s interesting that this film has come out only a few weeks after the release of Shutter Island, another film that explores paranoia in a New England setting.  That Scorsese film is certainly more ambitious, but in its own low key way The Ghost Writer explores the theme just as effectively.  That said, the Robert Harris novel upon which this is based does not strike me as a work of genius, it strikes me as a pretty typical beach read.  This is a case of a director elevating material, not a case of a director rising to the occasion.  This is certainly not Polanski’s best work, but it is a good work, one worth seeing.

***1/2 out of Four