Murky shades of grey ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Murky shades of grey

Green Zone
My rating:

The Bourne trilogy is, for my money, one of the most consistently good film series ever - although the first one tends to get overlooked because it wasn't directed by Paul Greengrass. It was the latter two that cemented his position on the A-list of directors, and the man totally deserves it. What with the amnesiac superspies, government brainwashing programs and over-the-top action scenes, the Bourne movies could've been awfully cheesy - but it was Greengrass' grittily realistic direction that made them the modern-day action classics that they are. It's probably due to such high expectations that Green Zone, his latest film, feels a bit like a letdown.

Don't worry. It's still good. I'm just picky.

Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) leads a team assigned to find weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq. When one site after another turns up empty, he begins to question the intel he is given - questions that are also asked by CIA chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) of Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the Pentagon bureaucrat who hands out the intel. On another fruitless mission, Miller is approached by "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla), an Iraqi local who gives him information that leads to a major breakthrough in his search - but then he is stymied by a Special Forces team led by the high-handed Major Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who answer only to Poundstone. Aided by Brown and journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), Miller aims to find the truth of the WMDs in Iraq - a truth buried under a great many lies.

I just rewrote that synopsis above so that it reveals a lot less about the plot. If you don't already know the details I left out, I suggest going in to this movie blind. I knew about the storyline and the setup, and the problem with the film is that it takes its time going through it. The plot is almost painstakingly methodical, and it all just feels like a lot of busywork. Now a methodical plot, in which the signposts are clear and every progression makes sense, is far from a bad thing - it wasn't a week ago that I saw a movie that didn't have one. But I couldn't shake the feeling that everything could've just moved faster. Brown tells Miller to speak to a prisoner at an Army prison, but he doesn't really have the clearance, so he tells Miller to ask to see a different prisoner, then bluff the guards into letting him see the man he's really there to see. And for the next 20 minutes, we see Miller do exactly all that. See? Busywork.

I suspect a lot of it has to do (again) with the screenplay - written by Brian Helgeland, who did L.A. Confidential but little else of note. Somehow there's just not much suspense; just a lot of stuff where, as above, what happens is exactly what we know is going to happen. Including the shocking, shocking, revelation that there are no WMDs in Iraq and it was all faked by Bush-administration neocons. I suppose neither Helgeland nor Greengrass can be blamed for this; they made this movie for Americans, most of whom still have trouble dealing with the fact that the entire Gulf War II was a conjob. Us, we're Malaysians. Our news coverage of the war referred to the coalition forces as "tentera penceroboh" - which, for the non-BM-speaking amongst you, translates to "trespassers".

Okay, I'm ragging on it way too much for a movie I gave three-and-a-half stars to, so let me say again that it's good. It's smart, it's gritty, it's engaging, it rewards attentive viewing, and when the fit hits the shan it's thrilling as hell. And to even the score, let me rave about something I really liked. Early on, a less idealistic member of Miller's team says, "We're here to do a job. The reasons don't matter" - and Miller answers, "They matter to me." Later on, when Freddy expresses doubts over their mission, Miller tells him, "I just need you to do your job right now." Ladies and gents, this is what's known as a call back, and it's a pretty damn subtle one. It's a hint that Miller's seemingly righteous crusade for the truth is going to lead him into morally murky territory - and it does.

I totally dig this kind of complex, layered storytelling, and this is Green Zone's greatest success. Poundstone is the clear villain here, and since he's at loggerheads with Brown who is also helping the hero, doesn't that mean we should root for Brown? But Brown's point of contention with Poundstone is that the U.S. provisional government should engage former members of the Iraqi military in rebuilding the country, in particular a certain General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor) - and Freddy, a citizen of that country, knows that Al-Rawi was a monster who committed crimes against the Iraqi people that no one seems to care about. For all that this is an action movie with a hero we're cheering for, it never forgets that the real world is never as clear-cut.

Greengrass' trademark shaky-cam style gets a lot of flak, but it did exactly what it was supposed to for me. The performances are effective but unshowy, which is all well and good; this is a razor-sharply focused story with no time for backstories or character arcs. But what it does best is turn complex, real-life issues into smart, engaging cinema - even if, y'know, it could've been a little more engaging. Which is why it surprised me to learn that critical reaction to it has been sharply divided, and worse, it was a major box-office bomb. Dumb Yanks. It's good. Just don't expect Bourne in Iraq.

Note: Oh, anna nother thing. This movie has some of the best Malay subtitles I've seen in a long time, and I tellya, for a film with as complex a plot as this, that's saying a lot. Usually the subtitles only stand out when they're bad - in Alice in Wonderland, "curiouser and curiouser" was translated as "orang yang ingin tahu dan orang yang ingin tahu" - but TMBF is your film critic, and it's his job to point out the good stuff you might otherwise overlook. I was impressed enough to (try and) take note of the subtitlers' names, so syabas to Rohayu Abdul Ghafar (or Ghafur) and Mr. Wong. Your work here deserves recognition.

NEXT REVIEW: Daybreakers
Expectations: it's the kinda thing that's right up my alley, so hope it's good


chicnchomel said...

would be less grumpy if we watched this movie instead last sunday. loved loved the bourne trilogy