Two boyish stars, two boffo franchises. Matt Damon is Jason Bourne in the Bourne trilogy; Robert Pattinson is Edward Cullen in the Twilight series. This week both are starring in new movies, and hope to drag their fans with them. With Bourne director Paul Greengrass at the helm, Damon dons Army fatigues in Green Zone, a kinetic thriller about conspiracy and cover-up in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S. invasion. It’s a movie on a political mission, but with its Cuisinart editing style, it plays like a Bourne adventure in military dress. In Remember Me, Pattinson loses the Goth make-up and amber contacts, and appears to play his shambling, self-deprecating self as a rebel without a cause. This earnest romance secretly wants to be a romantic comedy. It’s vampire-free, but still sticky with sentiment and contrived pathos. Pattinson and his vivacious co-star, Emilie de Ravin, generate some sparks , but the saddest thing about this tragedy is watching talented actors being slowly suffocated by a mediocre script. For more on Remember Me and the curious dilemma of its star, see my article in this week’s magazine: Someone rescue Robert Pattinson.
As for Green Zone, it’s a slickly made picture that’s hobbled by a double agenda. There’s no question that Paul Greengrass is a brilliant director of lean political dramas that have the authentic smack of documentaries, films like Bloody Sunday and United 93. There’s also no question that Greengrass is expert at crafting blockbuster thrill rides of escapist entertainment, i.e. the Bourne movies. With Green Zone, he tries to do both at once, which would seem like a natural impulse, an attempt to reconcile his worlds, but the result is unsatisfying as a political drama and an escapist thriller.
A convoluted script makes the plot almost as hard to follow as the manic camerawork. But behind all the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty straightforward. Our straight-arrow hero is U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), whose team is searching for the proverbial Weapons of Mass Destruction in the chaotic early days of the American occupation. As alleged sites keep turning up empty, he begins to wonder why the intelligence is so lousy. Gradually, Miller’s naivete gives way to suspicion as he sniffs out a conspiracy. And his mission changes, from searching for weapons to searching for truth. An Iraqi informant leads him to an enclave of Baathist leaders, and a general who may have the evidence he’s looking for. Meanwhile, as Miller goes rogue, he ends up at war with his own people, a cabal led an evil Defense Intelligence agent (Greg Kinnear) and an even more evil Special Forces operative with a biker moustache (Jason Isaacs). The puppet press, which spread the fake WMD info, is represented by a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Adams), and the guy with all the answers is a CIA station chief (Brendan Gleeson), who’s right out of a Graham Greene novel.
The story is a race against time. Miller has to get the evidence and forge a deal with the Iraq Army, salvaging some stability, before his superiors outlaw the army and start dismantling the country, which will lead to civil war. But who cares? Because, as armchair historians, we already know the WMDs were a Washington scam, we have a huge jump on the hero. And this is different than United 93—another thriller where the audience is way ahead of the characters. But that was non-fiction, and far more compelling. This is a heroic drama, and it’s overly-contrived.
The real substance of this movie is the action, not the politics. The director’s fetish for rapid-fire cutting and jittery hand-held camerawork is pushed to the limit. The conceit behind it seems to be that some unseen documentary filmmaker is capturing the story on the run, but it’s not consistent. Personally, I find the frantic shaky-cam style gratuitous and nauseating. But at a certain point the frenzy gets so wildly kinetic, you can’t even begin to follow the action, and that’s easier to watch—you just surrender to the images and let them wash over you as a kind verité abstract impressionism.
Green Zone moves so fast it makes The Hurt Locker look like an Antonioni film. But for a movie with such an cranked visual style, the script by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is awfully dumb and slow. Helgeland trots out the ABCs of the Iraq conflict through primer-like dialogue, with characters spouting lines like “This is the reason we went to war” and “Let’s not make any waves—they don’t want to hear that back in Washington” and [to the reporter] “How does someone like you write something that’s not true?”
“This is not a movie about the war in Iraq,” Greengrass has said, sounding a touch defensive. “It’s a thriller set in Iraq, and that’s a very different proposition. In my experience, thrillers are at their best when they’re in extreme environments where the moral challenges are acute.” Fine sentiments, but you can’t just use politics to juice up a formula thriller, especially when you know better.