It's been a bad year to be a blockbuster. Most of the films which were predicted to be sure-fire money-spinners have ended up either underperforming or flopping altogether. For whatever reason (piracy, high ticket prices, sequel fatigue, sporting events), audiences have, relatively speaking, stayed away in their droves this summer. And the moment the alarm bells started ringing was when Green Zone, with a healthy budget of $100m, took less than $20m on its opening weekend in the States.
In hindsight, it's a shame that audiences stayed away, because Green Zone is a highly effective, intelligent conspiracy thriller which beats The Hurt Locker in the rapidly-increasing sub-genre of Iraq war films. While nothing like as radical or innovative as his previous works, particularly The Bourne Ultimatum, it is a very solid and well-rounded addition to the Paul Greengrass oeuvre.
It's inevitable to compare Green Zone and The Hurt Locker for the simple fact they cover the same war and came out around the same time. One could almost call them our equivalent of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket - although neither comes remotely close to the quality of Stanley Kubrick's work. Green Zone is the better film, though, for two reasons.
Firstly, it is generically speaking much more sure of itself. The conspiracy elements of The Hurt Locker felt tacked-on and distracting, while Green Zone follows through with its thriller premise to a very satisfying conclusion. Secondly, for a similar reason, it has the strength of its convictions. Greengrass never resorts to sentimentality to get his message across, unlike the scenes at the end of The Hurt Locker showing Jeremy Renner's failure to cope with domesticity.
That said, The Hurt Locker does have a better opening. The first 20 minutes of Green Zone do feel flat and generic, covering ground which seems very familiar. Greengrass' familiar 'shaky-camera' shooting style can be alienating at first; unlike The Bourne Ultimatum, the opening sense of disorientation does not add anything to the story or the experience of watching the first few scenes play out. These scenes give the first indication that Greengrass is in danger of becoming a prisoner of his own technique. Much like Nick Broomfield before him, he may soon be at the point of needing to adopt an alternative approach to prevent any unnecessary self-indulgence.
Much of the criticism surrounding Green Zone has centred on either the technical front (like the camerawork) or the overly familiar narrative. But while the opening may seem too familiar to be properly engaging, both of these elements eventually sort themselves out and the film does evolve into a highly effective conspiracy thriller. We might not want the constant cutting and juddering of the camera in the opening, but by the time we reach the big chase in the last half hour we have become used to it and the technique makes a lot more sense.
When Jason Isaacs was promoting Green Zone, he remarked at how Greengrass' organic technique has been poorly imitated since the success of the Bourne films. Many films he had worked on, he said, aimed to be like the Bourne films, only to be shot in a conventional way but with the camera being deliberately juddered or scenes shot out of focus. It is fair to say that the pale imitations of 'shaky camera' have become so commonplace that when the real thing returns it could be treated with suspicion. The fact remains that Green Zone is the real deal - proper, organic filmmaking, directed with intelligence and integrity for both actors and audience.
As for the familiarity with the plot, this is a combination of two factors. On the one hand, we have the generic outline of a conspiracy thriller, which typically involves our protagonist becoming embroiled in a series of ever-darkening circumstances which leads him to the centre of an elaborate web. On the other hand, we have the varying accounts of and reports into the Iraq War, and the spectrum of public opinion - including a great many people who believe, like the film, that the war was fought and justified under false pretences.
But just as the Bourne series took the familiar elements of the spy thriller and cleverly inverted them, so it makes sense to make a film about Iraq which is centred around the idea of a conspiracy. Sure, not every film about the war should be an exercise in finger-pointing or creating hate figures. But because Green Zone focuses so tightly around the search for WMDs and the nature of intelligence, shooting and structuring it like a thriller does the material more justice. The film is meticulous researched, so that even the most outlandish moments feel grounded in reality. Only Greengrass could have gotten away with the scenes by the swimming pool in the Imperial Palace, or Jason Isaacs' Village People moustache.
Sticking with the Bourne comparison, the film departs from the conventional thriller in the nature of the antagonist our hero is facing. The Bourne films, but Ultimatum especially, played upon the idea of modern good and evil being fragmented, with the various security agencies fighting as much amongst themselves as they were against any 'common enemy'. The thesis of Green Zone is that the war was fought not simply on the whim of power-mad politicians, but on bad journalism. It depicts a network of denial and self-deception which stretches right to the top, and every individual's crime is that they simply didn't question what they were told or where it came from.
What this allows Greengrass to do is to take a subject matter which is familiar to many and add a vital air of unpredictability. To simply have Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller going on a one-man crusade against his government would be entertaining up to a point but not especially insightful. So in addition to the shady presence of Greg Kinnear, we have the double-agent stand-ins that are the Special Forces (Mr. Isaacs and company), along with the mixed loyalties of the Iraqi citizens themselves. The only real foundation of hope (excluding Matt Damon) is Brendan Gleeson's sympathetic CIA agent, and his power is virtually eliminated halfway through.
Green Zone's central message is this: no kind of information can be taken for granted. Just because something is said to be true by a large number of people, that does not make it automatically true. This may seem like cod postmodernism, but it is a poignant commentary not just on modern journalism, but on the information age as a whole. With so much data being made readily available, it is now easier than ever before to spread rumours, myths, half-truths and downright lies. The whole idea of collaborative history and social commentary, through Wikipedia and social networking, is immensely attractive. But the film clearly warns about the dangers of accepting truth by consensus rather than through meticulous individual soul-searching.
Green Zone is an entertaining, compelling and highly intelligent thriller with a series of solid performances. Matt Damon continues his good run from Invictus with a convincing portrayal, which puts fairly clear water between him and Jason Bourne. It isn't a great film by any means; certainly the lacklustre opening makes it pale in comparison to both The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93. But it is so much more than just another Iraq conspiracy movie, and it deserves to be seen.