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Introduction to Green Zone

I understand Green Zone is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today. Blimey, things come out fast these days, don’t they?

Anyway, since I forgot at the time, it seems a reasonable opportunity to post the introduction I did before a screening of Green Zone at Derby QUAD earlier this year.

Certainly, it’s a decent-ish film, not perfect but well worth a look (I’ll put a review up soon), so read the following, then buy/rent/download the film and come back for the review.

Green Zone introduction

The success of The Hurt Locker at this year’s Academy Awards was a landmark, and not only because Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. The film is also the first about the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ to win Best Picture – a rare occasion when voters have rewarded a film tackling controversial current affairs. Not since Vietnam war movies The Deer Hunter and Platoon took the top prize have the Oscars been so close to the bone.

What’s interesting is that, when The Deer Hunter beat fellow Vietnam movie Coming Home to Best Picture in April 1979, it was twenty years since the conflict began and four since it was over; fast-forward to 2009. The Hurt Locker’s win came in the seventh year of the Iraq War, or the eighth year if you mark 9/11 as the starting point – and of course the war is still going. Is that a sign that today’s Hollywood directors are more willing to confront raw, traumatic incidents head-on?

Yet, despite The Hurt Locker’s Oscar success, that directness doesn’t translate into box office – another of the film’s landmarks is that, in terms of ticket sales, it is the worst performing Best Picture winner in history. Filmmakers might be willing to tackle Iraq, but audiences? Perhaps not.

Or perhaps it’s a question of how those issues are dealt with. Some of the best films about Vietnam weren’t war movies at all, but Westerns like The Wild Bunch or horror movies like Night of the Living Dead. Similarly, some of the biggest hits of the past decade have been informed by the spectre of the ongoing war: in Iron Man, the hero is an arms dealer kidnapped by insurgents in Afghanistan; in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s random acts of violence reflect a world where fear of suicide bombings is rife. Then there is the extreme gore of torture-porn franchises Hostel and Saw, whose sadistic imagery is straight out of Abu Ghirab.

But it’s a different matter when a director tackles the war directly. By and large, the films emerging have been earnest liberal laments for the senselessness of the war, and the human cost back home – Stop-Loss, In The Valley of Elah, Lions For Lambs. None of these dented the box-office; nor were they, particularly, critically acclaimed. Arguably, they pulled their punches because they were caught in this no man’s land between being serious and complex on one hand, and trying to engage a mainstream audience on the other.

The Hurt Locker took a different stance – less “why is this happening?” than “what is happening?” – by embedding us with soldiers on the front-line. It’s a familiar tactic in the war movie, seen in everything from Platoon to Saving Private Ryan, because it allows filmmakers to do what cinema does best: a sensory immersion in the here and now. What does it actually feel like to be there, in the heat of the moment? Such an approach needn’t be devoid of historical context or political analysis; indeed, it’s often the best way of getting the message across, because it follows the maxim of ‘show, don’t tell.’

Bigelow appears to have taken her cue from one of the most successful ‘War on Terror’ movies – Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which delivered a real-time vision of the hell of 9/11 from both the ground and the air. She even hired that film’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, a veteran of countless Ken Loach films famed for the verisimilitude of his images, to guarantee the realism she wanted.

Now, almost inevitably, Greengrass himself, aided by Ackroyd, has come to Iraq. Green Zone tells the story of US soldier Roy Miller (played by Matt Damon), as he struggles to locate the weapons of mass destruction that Blair and Bush were adamant Saddam Hussein was hoarding. Nowadays, we know better – and the film captures that agonising period when it became obvious to the troops on the ground that the entire war was based on false, and possibly faked, intelligence.

This is the kind of heady, provocative stuff that is Greengrass’ stock-in-trade. As a director, he made his name during the 1980s on the crusading current affairs show World In Action which, as its title suggested, wasn’t afraid to get its nose bloodied in the cause of discovering the truth. Punchy, populist but politically aware, Greengrass’ bristling, edgy realism gradually morphed into drama, but he never lost those roots. His feature-length docudramas The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday utilised rigorous research and recreation to put the viewer right in the centre of events, asking big questions simply by observing and reporting.

The style translated effortlessly to America in United 93, where Greengrass boldly cast real-life air traffic controllers, often as themselves, to ensure absolute authenticity of language and behaviour, and even those actors he used were unfamiliar, anonymous, so as not to distract from the realism. That’s a trick Bigelow borrowed for The Hurt Locker – her leads’ faces might be vaguely familiar to movie buffs, but they were hardly household names.

And yet here’s Matt Damon, one of the most famous movie stars in the world, starring in what is – judging from the trailer – an all-out action thriller. Has Greengrass sold out? Hardly – because, of course, Greengrass has already directed Damon to cinematic immortality in the two Jason Bourne sequels, Supremacy and Ultimatum – arguably the best and most influential action movies of the past decade. When Greengrass was hired to take over The Bourne Supremacy, many saw him as a bizarre choice. But, in hindsight, his recruitment was inspired, audacious and has had an incalculable impact on modern filmmaking.

Everything comes down to that quest to place us in the thick of it. Intriguingly, Greengrass’ action sensibilities go back at least as far as 1995, when he directed his first adventure of conflict in Iraq: The One That Got Away, ITV’s dramatisation of Bravo Two Zero heroics during the first Gulf War. By the time of Bloody Sunday, he’d refined his style into a bravura orchestration of chaos: helter-skelter camerawork, rapid editing and a flurry of movement.

With the Bourne movies, Greengrass had a masterstroke – let’s push those techniques further than anybody has gone before, into a near-abstract blur of kinetic energy and stroboscopic imagery. The results are so thrilling that every action franchise that values its future are now aping Greengrass’ innovations, most obviously James Bond. But, with United 93 and, especially, Green Zone, Greengrass is forging further ahead – feeding the action back into the docudrama. Why not? We live in confusing, chaotic times, and his permanently punch-drunk images provide the perfect visualisation.

The irony is that, somewhere along the way, he’s swapped places with the old-school action movie brigade. Who would have thought that Kathryn Bigelow, the woman who unleashed the guilty pleasures of tongue-in-cheek testorone-fest Point Break, would make such a clammy, controlled exercise in tension as The Hurt Locker? Similarly, it would once have been inconceivable that the understated anguish of The Murder of Stephen Lawrence could mutate to the jittery shock and awe of Green Zone? But I don’t think this make Greengrass a lesser director. The bottom line is that Greengrass is raising everybody’s game by synthesising style with content, and the average IQ of the Hollywood action movie is surely on the up.

For the Iraq movie, though, that rise is still blocked by a glass ceiling. Green Zone has eclipsed United 93’s box office take, but only by a couple of million dollars – suggesting that, even after The Hurt Locker, and despite Greengrass’ best efforts to engage the mainstream sensibilities, there’s still a cap on audience’s willingness to sit through a war that they can still see 24/7 in rolling news coverage. But Greengrass, both in his own films and those he has influenced, is still pushing tirelessly ahead, using sensation and sophistication to make us think and feel about the world we live in. Eventually, the battering ram of Greengrass’ filmmaking is going to cause that ceiling to shatter.

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