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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Green Zone

When I re-committed to the blog three months ago after a post-less fall 2009, one of the things I said I'd try and do was limit the length of my posts, and on balance I think I've done that. There goes that goal. There's too much going on in Green Zone (see Wednesday evening March 10, 2010 at the Universal Screening Room) to keep it short.

The movie can be reviewed as a Bourne-like action movie. Green Zone star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass teamed on Bourne #2 and Bourne #3. And it can be reviewed as a polemic, yet another Iraq polemic after movies of highly variable success from Stop Loss as a very good and underrated one to In the Valley of Elah as a less successful one, or Rendition and De Palma's Redacted (watched one on HBO on Demand, didn't see the other) and etc. etc. And let us not forget Hurt Locker, which was photographed by Green Zone cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who worked with Greengrass previously on United 93.

I should probably start by talking about the film from the thriller standpoint, that being the more successful part of the movie. But I'm not. Let's talk politics.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war in late 2002 and early 2003, I was very ambivalent about the whole affair. I was fairly certain that Iraq did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Just a gut feeling, really. We were looking so hard for them, so very very very very hard, and we weren't coming up with anything, not even the Colin Powell address at the UN, that was looking very convincing to me. Seemed to me if they were there that all of our money and effort and searching would have come up with something. Maybe not a smoking gun, maybe just a smoldering soap sculpture thereof. But something.

At the same time, I didn't feel as if the war was necessarily a bad idea. Saddam Hussein was a very bad actor. We were enforcing sanctions on his regime with the weight of a six-figure troop deployment without much of a helping hand from anyone else. Either we were going to have to get some help in enforcing sanctions, we were going to have to give up on the idea because it was unsustainable to continue to enforce them unilaterally, or we were going to have to charge forward. Now, given those choices, which in the real world are we going to choose?

So I didn't dislike the rush to war, per se. I did feel as if we were being lied into a war when we didn't need to be, and that to me was a bad idea.

I recall at the time that the left-wing serious UK newspaper The Guardian did a major series exploring the question of whether or not Iraq had WMD. That kind of reporting was pretty much absent from the major US newspapers. The press defenders will find this exception or that, but the Guardian articles were long, major, front-page, well-researched, pro-and-con heavily reported articles. I don't think anyone can seriously point to a series in the Washington Post, NY Times, or Wall Street Journal, the three biggest opinion leaders in US journalism, that matched. Compare, let's say, how much ink the NY Times has given in recent months to errors in radiation treatment at US hospitals, and you'd have to look awfully hard to find something like that in 2002 or 2003 on the WMD question. No, the major newspapers were highly credulous. The poster child for this has become a former NY Times reporter Judith Miller who was a go-to conduit for planting the official US line on the WMD question.

And Green Zone is coming from a very similar place.

Matt Damon is playing a Chief Warrant Officer (itself a bit of a surprise, we don't have too many movies with Warrant Officers at the center, Andy Gudgel will like this!) who is tasked with searching potential WMD sites in the months after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. We come in as he's doing his third such search, and for the third time coming up empty. He doesn't like risking men to come up empty. He starts asking where the WMD are, where the intelligence is coming from, other questions that don't have answers. He's in such a high dudgeon about this that he ends up going off res to do his own side ops, ultimately trying to take in a possible source of the misinformation. He runs up against a buzzsaw of an obstacle played by Greg Kinnear, a Paul Bremer stand-in (for those of you who don't remember, Bremer was Dubya's appointee to pretty much run Iraq as head of the Coalition authority) who doesn't like people looking very closely at the sourcing for the WMD intelligence. The climactic scene of the movie is Damon going to take in source chased by special forces units tasked by Kinnear with getting the source before Damon does, and with doing to Damon whatever needs to be done.

The ideological climax of the movie is a confrontation between Damon and Kinnear after where Damon says words very much to my liking, that the reasons why we go to war matter.

But while the movie climaxes with a confrontation between its two leads that very much warms my heart, the movie has to hit too many wrong notes in order to hit the right ones. It isn't likely that the Damon character would self-generate so many of his own orders. There are more successful paranoid conspiracy films that might get us to believe the Special Forces unit would kill Damon in the climax if it came to that, but I couldn't buy into it here. That they might tussle with Damon to get a little black book, yes, that they might kill him, no.

I always felt that we could have been led into war in 2003 for better reasons than the WMD, but the movie doesn't have that ambivalency. That one reason wasn't a right reason, and the war must therefore have been wrong. There's no sense that the war might still have been a right one to wage for other reasons.

There's even the question of whether those who were lying us into war were lying about it, in the sense of purposely and knowingly giving us false information, and I'm not sure I'd go that far in every instance. The war was oversold, and some of the people who did that should take ownership of their lies and mistakes (greeted as liberators, y'all remember that?), but this is an area with more grey than black and white.

But I can't fault the movie too much for that, either. Fiction films don't do very well with greys. You don't put Matt Damon in this role in order to have him Hamlet-ized with inner conflict. I'm not sure what the right or better approach would be. God knows there isn't going to be much of an audience for an even-handed documentary that attempts to show the world the "truth" about the lead-up to the war. The sub-conscious reason of needing to go to war to escape the sanctions enforcement conundrum hasn't been aired very much at all, that's for sure. We don't have an All the President's Men that can serve as a way in to the story. We don't have the consensus we did 25 years ago that allowed All the President's Men to be seen as a genuine good vs evil story.

I will fault the movie because I think its efforts to bring in the "whole" story about the WMD lie result in some of its worst offenses as filmmaking. We have a Judith Miller stand-in. Here she's a reporter for the Wall St. Journal who pretty much printed the press releases from her government sources about the source named "Magellan" who was pointing us to WMD, and implied is the same source for the bum steers Damon's being given. She's not a very good character in the script, or not well depicted by Amy Ryan. She radiates oily journalism, and not much else. And then Matt Damon's guided from within the government by an old CIA hand who doesn't like these politicos like the Greg Kinnear character. This is a lesser performance by usually reliable character actor Brendan Gleeson, who performs here like he wandered in accidentally off the set of The Third Man or The Quiet American. Gleeson may not be entirely to blame. The script comes up short in explaining who this character is, what the does, and how he relates to the other characters. I had a hard time figuring it out for the entire duration of the movie.

All that being said, there are lots of things in Green Zone that are well worth praise.

Let's start with Matt Damon.

It's around twelve years and twelve weeks since I took a note to self that Damon could act, when I saw him, the week before Titanic opened, in The Rainmaker at the Loews Astor Plaza and in Good Will Hunting on the Loews Lincoln Square Imax screen. [As an entirely irrelevant aside, I saw Rainmaker with my old SMLA colleague Mark, who also joined me for Green Zone.] I'm tempted to say he was born to play the lead role in Green Zone, only problem with that is he's so talented that he was born to play an awful lot of things. His prior two films are Invictus and The Informant, he's every bit as good in those as he is in Green Zone, and the three roles are as alike as snow flakes.

Every note he hits in Green Zone, he hits it right. Physically, he walks around in the movie like he was born in the US Army, went to kindergarten at the Warrant Officer school. He utterly inhabits the role. The role as written is filled with implausibility, but the role as acted has none. You never question that he'd start to follow his own orders and that his reports would follow. Some credit to the script that not all of them follow unquestionably.

Paul Greengrass is capable of doing different things in his work. United 93 and Bloody Sunday are two different varieties of verite. This movie is in the fast-paced, fast-cut, vertigo-inducing hand-held camera style we found in the first two Bourne movies. It's brilliantly crafted, in a mirror opposite way to the surprising leisure of Inglorious Basterds.

I don't know what inspired me to do this, but in the climactic scene of Green Zone, I decided to count the number of cuts, and there were upwards of 200 of them in these few minutes when Damon is chasing the Iraqi he wants to bring in and being chased in turn by the evil Special Forces unit. Upwards of 200! Yet Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse make it cohere. One of the things I noticed was that you never lost even a fraction of a second picking up the action after a cut. The central human figure at the beginning of one shot is always to be found in the same place as at the end of the shot before, usually going in a direction that was followable. Because many of the characters were in uniform, and because some shot sequences would cut from a character being chased shot from the back in uniform to the character who was chasing shot from the back in uniform down the same alley way, it wasn't easy to count all of the cuts because you almost didn't realize you were with a different character. Sometimes this gives more of a general sense of chaos than of the exact specifics of the action. But when you needed to know the exacts, you knew the exact, and when it was sufficient to be caught up in the overall chaos of the scene, you were caught up in that.

This kind of thing doesn't happen without a lot of work and a lot of planning. You can't do this in the editing room without having the right shots on film. There needs to be a stunning level of coordination on set between the director and the cinematographer and pretty much everyone else in order to make all of these shots line up when it gets to the cutting room.

When Michael Bay cuts around like this in Armageddon, or when some other Jerry Bruckheimer acolytye does this fast-paced whirlybird editing, the word we usually use for it is "incoherent." Alas, I just don't have the stomach to go back and watch Armageddon to see if I can come up with the precise reason why their incoherence is Greengrass' brilliance, but I think I can guess that you won't see the same kind of exact placement of action from shot to shot that we see in Green Zone.

Should you see Green Zone? This is one of the reasons why I decided to do away with toad ratings for the movies I blogged about. As full-throttle military action, you can't do much better than Green Zone. All of the people complaining in the Hurt Locker backlash/whisper campaign how it had the wrong uniforms won't have anything to complain about here. Many of those same people will probably be more upset than I am with what the movie has to say about the underpinnings and politics of the Iraq war than I.

I got to see an advance screening of this, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, in the Universal Screening Room. The studio's Manhattan outpost is located in a historic publishing location, 666 Fifth Avenue. This building housed Bantam Books for many many years, and the flagship location of B. Dalton was on street level. As can be expected for a screening room, it wasn't particularly big. But it had very comfortable seats, sufficient ceiling height to all for a full theatre-sized screen, and an excellent sound system. The one problem was that there isn't much of a rake to the auditorium, so you have to hope nobody tall is sitting directly in front of you.

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