Monday, March 29, 2010
The Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010)
Paul Greengrass' The Green Zone wants to be a cinema verite expose of what went down during the first year of the American occupation of Iraq, and to be fair the man is uniquely qualified to do this--he started out as a director for a British current affairs show and co-wrote a nonfiction book on British espionage before moving on to dramatic features that employ pseudo-documentary filmmaking techniques.
It's an honest enough attempt, only God--or in this case The Devil--is in the details. For my taste he likes verite techniques a little too much; the camera seems to jump not so much because of an inexpert hand (even the most amateur of videocam operators know they have to at least try keep the camera still) as of a hand deliberately trying to create the impression of an inexpert hand. The editing is strictly for those with ADHD, the chaos seemingly maintained for the sake of chaos.
Tempting to compare this to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009), only the similarities (Iraq War, desert setting, specialized unit on a mission) are deceptive. The Hurt Locker is a straightforward entertainment that only incidentally touches upon substantial issues (perhaps the most significant being a subtle one, the intrusive nature of the American presence: Iraqis stop whatever they are doing to watch members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit pull on their diving suits, step forward, risk their lives--almost as if the unit had been sent out and served up as evening amusement). The Green Zone is despite its ambitions also entertainment, albeit one trying to pass itself off as serious drama--the picture spins a complicated plot (conceived by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran) full of espionage and a few setpiece battle sequence, serving regular doses of action every half hour. Greengrass' action doesn't have to be coherent, just seemingly authentic, and realistically paced (no slow-motion, for one).
The Green Zone emphasizes hurtling, forward motion as their soldiers hunt for an elusive Iraqi general ("hence," one imagines Greengrass as saying, "my hurtling camerawork"); The Hurt Locker attempts to build tension out of a static object, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) buried or otherwise hidden away, in the ground, in a car, in a dead body. Its camera will often stand poised, suspended, as if terrified of disturbing the soldier bent over his work in feverish concentration. Apples and oranges, in other words.
Except in this case I do hold an opinion: prefer an orange's sweet-tart juiciness, just as I prefer Bigelow's artful simulation of chaotic handheld camerawork over Greengrass' genuine achievement of same. In Bigelow's picture there's breathing room to evoke any number of things--the uncomfortable fact that you don't know any of the people watching you, for one, don't speak their language, can't possibly know their motives. In Greengrass' there's the storyline, which needs mucho explication; when the latest plot point has been impatiently put away, Greengrass proceeds to toss the camera out the window, in the hopes of cutting the resulting footage into a chase sequence (whether it cuts or not, makes sense or not is secondary to the cool effect he's just created). Possibly it's my prejudices speaking, but I still hanker for the violence of yore, the Fordian or Hawksian fisticuffs with their classically proportioned framing and mercilessly precise editing.
Possibly a more pertinent analogy is between The Green Zone and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010). Both take topical themes and weave speculative fictions out of them; both keep one guessing as to who is the central political figure being parodied (Paul Bremer in the former, Tony Blair in the latter).
There is a critical difference: The Ghost Writer possesses a sharp, supple sense of humor that not only adds to the film's storytelling but encompasses its targets' every flaw, no matter how perverse (in the case of ex-prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), he handily combines the sliminess of Blair with the vacuousness of Ronald Reagan). The Green Zone has zero humor, and in the case of its Judith Miller figure, grossly underestimates her capacity for dishonesty (one can imagine how much fun Polanski would have had with her character). A pity, especially since its source material (the aforementioned book Imperial Life in the Emerald City) so vividly captures the circus-like image of Republican loyalists lost in the dangerously complex Oz that is the Middle East--that brief scene by the pool doesn't even begin to suggest how bizarre conditions were at the time. Couldn't they put in more of the circus, less of the drama, more of the cluelessness, less of the shaky-cam?
The Green Zone (please skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen either picture) ends on a relatively hopeful note with the truth exposed, if not heard loud enough to stop the blooming Iraqi insurgency (why not the picture never really explains, a bad bit of carelessness, there); The Ghost Writer neatly squares away its every loophole, ensuring that whatever revelations have been made to the audience of a wide conspiracy is buried under evidence of an even wider conspiracy.
For all the effort it expends on creating an aura of realism The Green Zone comes off as a fantasy, an act of willfully wishful thinking built on the Hollywood expectation that The Truth Will Out, and Good Guys Win After All; for all its stylishness and mischievous wit The Ghost Writer is an altogether different work, saying no matter how much truth you uncover there's always more to uncover, and your biggest victory will at best be your continued survival (which isn't guaranteed, not by a long shot). All things considered, I'd say Polanski's film is the more believable.