Amongst mainstream directors, Paul Greengrass is the only true craftsman. This is because he is able to deal out action films that beats Hollywood with its own model. This is to say, he is a master of the short take, having developed his own stylization of this type of shot over the course of two Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) and his 9/11 pean, United 93. His latest film, Green Zone, is stylistically no different, and by this I mean it is frequently astonishing. Greengrass has the guts to turn what others would deem a long take in to a series of short takes; hurried tracking shots down hallways and through gunfire are spliced up in to three or four second shots from three or four different angles. He does not believe that a short take is incompatible with elaborate camerawork; witness not just the constant jiggling (it’s hard not to), but also the shots following a soldier walking, before an abrupt pan to another figure who has appeared in his line of vision, all in the span of a few seconds. Short takes don’t single out human expression or dramatic use of space either; faces are seen from several different angles as they react to any given revelation; a short wide shot of a dusty, troop infested Iraqi town center cuts to a close-up of the intelligence report being read by Sergeant Miller (Matt Damon) in that same location. For Paul Greengrass, the short take is not just a flimsy framework by which to make cheap jokes, flaunt sentimentality and excess, and appeal to our only our crudest instincts, as it is in most Hollywood films. They have nothing to do with a short attention span. Short takes consider all sides of the situation (literally) and emphasize actions, reactions and consequence. They keep us abreast of a film’s rhythm
That rhythm is, obviously, fast and tense, and it should be, considering the work these men are doing. Miller is a military operative assigned to finding WMD sites around Baghdad. Him and his troops aren’t having any luck, so he is called on to capture General Al Wari (Yigal Naor), Sadaam Hussein’s number two general, to tell them where the sites are. While trying to capture Al Rawi, with the help of an Iraqi interpreter (Khalid Abdalla) and many insurgents, he starts to see the inter-army backstabbing going on within his own forces, and meets a journalist who may not have covered her story about WMD’s so well, leading him to believe give up on the whole premise of the war even as he closes in on the brutal general.
(The actual Green Zone)
The story itself is quite typical of the righteous anti-war film, even as the film basks in a haze of constant action and exciting war violence. Yet these are the faults of virtually any movie about war, no matter what the moral viewpoint. The complication arising with Green Zone is that there is a moral point at all. Greengrass, following suite with previous superb craftsmen in Hollywood like Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, seems artistically unbiased, willing to take what is offered to him and make something of it. What has come his way this time is a film that pauses sometimes to wax eloquently on American hypocrisy, then keep going with the action, then pauses again to show the how even the Iraqi bad guys are tormented, then keeps going with the action, then pauses to simply state that war is wrong, then keeps going with the war. A moral film by necessity involves reflection; reflection on what is immoral and contemplation of the resolution. We would need to reflect on Matt Damon’s face as he registers what he did wrong and we would need to reflect on the disarray brought upon Iraq in single shots. This would necessarily mean longer takes and a more languid rhythm. In the Bourne films, we saw long-ish shots of Matt Damon breathing heavily, recuperating, alone after an explosive burst of violence, or in conversation with whoever was the key to him remembering who he really was. These slower scenes had longer shots that were there for the purpose of giving us a reprieve. The longer shots in Green Zone are ostensibly there to incite a war of thought and sentiment in our head, but it feels halfhearted each time. How is one supposed to get gushy about war when they’re catching their’ breath before the next short-take jam session?
Short takes do not speak to our intellect, and they do not make emotional appeals; they speak to our guts and accelerate our practical observations. Green Zone ends, appropriately, on a flash of images of Damon getting back on the job; getting back on the job is what Greengrass should do, too, and it looks like he will. He hasn’t picked the wrong genre and he hasn’t picked the wrong model, but he did pick the wrong story. War, politics, and humanism are worthy subjects, but he doesn’t speak their’ language.