American jazz commentator Scott Yanow wrote of Charlie Parker that “he could play remarkably fast lines that, if slowed down to half speed, would reveal that every note made sense.” In a cinematic age where the aesthetics of shaky cameras and sub-2-second Average Shot Lengths (ASL) seem to rule mainstream Hollywood, one wonders if there’s a directorial equivalent of Charlie Parker. If we dissected the 2500-5000 shots that make up any given fast-ASL film, would every shot make sense? Or are the fast cuts merely there to cover up the fact that nothing of substance is happening, and is merely the filmmaker’s way of distracting us from that fact? If there’s one director who has most fallen under the shaky cam/short ASL microscope it’s Paul Greengrass when his Bourne Ultimatum became the target of articles by the likes of David Bordwell and Roger Ebert who addressed this very subject.
With Green Zone, Greengrass has moved out of the realm of the purely fictional Bourne films and back into the fictionalized drama set against a real historical backdrop of previous films like United 93 and Bloody Sunday. This time the setting is Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. Matt Damon is Capt. Miller, the leader of a MET D squad who have been sent to Iraq to uncover Weapons of Mass Destruction. After repeatedly coming up empty, Miller becomes suspicious and begins questioning the intelligence of the mysterious source, code named Magellan, who is locked up under tight security by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). Poundstone wants to completely rebuild Iraq by dismantling the old government and army, but Iraqi specialist Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) feels this is a huge mistake. When an Iraqi citizen nicknamed Freddy (Khalid Abdaila) informs Miller that the Iraqi General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor) is holding a meeting nearby, Miller is forced to ignore orders to investigate the truth behind the absence of WMD in Iraq.
Like the Bourne films, Greengrass has constructed Green Zone as, first and foremost, an action thriller, one that hurtles along at a million-miles-per-minute, only taking breaths to catch us up on relevant expository points as layers of the mystery are unveiled. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between this film and the Bournes, and Greengrass even quips near the end of the commentary that if the film doesn’t work at the box office, they could simply rename it “Bourne in Iraq”. The truth of that statement isn’t far-off, and those who have found themselves riveted by the action of Bourne probably won’t find much to complain about here. Damon does indeed seem to be merely playing Jason Bourne in a military uniform. If Damon’s Miller isn’t exactly three-dimensional or complex, he is nonetheless thoroughly believable in the role. This is confirmed by the real soldiers themselves, who considered Damon to be one of their own, and immediately took to him as their squad leader.
One thing that sets Greengrass apart from his fast-cutting, shaky cam contemporaries is his ability to merge the realism of the setting with the heightened, manipulative drama of a classic Hollywood film. Greengrass’ filming methods are indicative of this. He frequently sets up entire scenes, merely sketching the outline of what has to happen, but letting his actors improvise from there. The fact that he’s using real military men as opposed to professional actors (besides Damon, of course) adds to the sense of dramatic realism. The scenes play out often in their entirety while the crew is taxed with recording the action. That sense of nervousness due to the improvisation is, theoretically, meant to be enhanced by the erratic camera movement and frequent cutting as it is constantly shifting our attention to the many details that make up a scene rather than the entirety of the scene itself. The result is like a form of rapid-fire cubism in which we construct a scene from the montage of pieces that have been chopped up like a finely diced salad.
One sequence especially seems to encapsulate this style. It begins with the subdued soldiers digging in a playground for WMD, and Freddy’s first meeting with Miller in which he reveals that Al Rawi and other men are meeting nearby. Like a flash of lightning the film is up and running with the soldiers covering the area preparing to invade the house. As they enter, confusion reigns as the Iraqi army and Al Rawi scramble for the exits while Miller and his men attempt to secure the premises. Shots are fired, unknown men are killed, the family inside are screaming. The event itself is brief, but Greengrass’ camera and editing galvanizes the propulsion and enhances the sense of confusion. The film modulates that intensity all the way through until another team mysteriously shows up to forcibly take the prisoners from Miller’s unit, Freddy flees (with a valuable notebook), and Miller finally catches up with him asking him why he’s running.
This last scene, which closes this breathless sequence of events, has Freddy emotionally telling Miller that he hasn’t done this for any reward, but because he loves his country. That ability to have us electrically involved in the thrilling action one moment, and then have us taking a breather and contemplating the issues in another gives Greengrass’ films a substance which most of his contemporaries lack. But if they suffer at all, it’s simply from overuse. One wonders how much of this style a viewer can take before they become immune and it ceases to lose its power to genuinely thrill. But even one of the film’s real soldiers revealed in an interview after the scene that his hand was shaking and that “it doesn’t get any realer than that”. The ability to produce that kind of reaction with both actors and audiences is the primary element that has made these films such a success.
Greengrass’ films are not unlike a form of neo-realism, which also combined real historical settings with a traditional brand of drama. The differences in style and method seem less consequential compared to the setting and effect that both sought to achieve. Like those neo-realist roots, Greengrass has a wonderful ability to crystallize the conflict and action; even during pitch-black night scenes, filming with extremely high-speed, grainy film, and shallow depth-of-field, the linearity of events is never confusing (likely because we’re made aware of what’s going to happen beforehand) so Greengrass can freely let events play out in front of the camera. If anything, in a film like Green Zone, one actually gets a more complete and complex picture of events. On a character level, this is a film without easily defined villains. Even Kinnear who plays Poundstone as a subtle, slimy snake (and who’s performance will likely go unnoticed) feels as if he’s doing the right thing. This is a film full of characters who all want what’s best for their country—be it Freddy as a native citizen of Iraq, Al Rawi as an Iraqi general, Miller as US military captain, or Brown as a US government Iraqi expert—but whom disagree over exactly the proper course.
In its own way, Green Zone subtly captures the feeling of unrest, paranoia, waiting and confusion that took place in ’03 when we were assured Iraq had WMD, only to later find out they didn’t. While the events themselves are obviously fictionalized and dramatized—as Morpheus said in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, “Things need not have happened in order to be true”—_Green Zone_ feels truthful even when we know it’s not factual. It ultimately poses the timely and timeless question of whether or not the ends justify the means. Green Zone doesn’t make for as potent a social commentary as Bloody Sunday, or as finely crafted pure entertainment as the Bourne films, but it is nonetheless a solid, thoroughly entertaining thriller; even if myself and others, I suspect, aren’t ready to proclaim Greengrass the Charlie Parker of modern cinema.