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Why 'Green Zone' failed

March 15, 2010 |  5:36 pm

It's dispiriting to sit back today and soak in just how poorly "Green Zone" performed over the weekend, earning a meager $14.3 million. Depression sets in because the Paul Greengrass movie is legitimately great, a potent thriller and action picture that entertains no matter your politics (we're not the only ones who feel this way -- the movie is the second best-reviewed wide release of the year according to meta-review site Movie Review Intelligence).

But what's even more discouraging about the results is that they offer definitive proof that even the highest-quality filmmaking and the most palatable marketing hook can't save a movie set in a tumultuous Middle East. This was a movie retailed as a Jason Bourne-like thriller made by the director and the star of same, with all the double-crosses, chases and explosions one would want from such a union. And yet no matter how deftly it was executed, audiences didn't see past the topicality. The simple presence of Iraq kept people home, as it has before for films of so many different stripes, tones and budgets.

What's less clear -- and, indeed, what gets under our skin -- is the debate over how specific politics are responsible for the film's failure. "Did politics sink Matt Damon's 'The Green Zone'?" an Atlantic blog asks. Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood compares the opening of "Green Zone," unfavorably, to the Damon-Greengrass collaborations "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" and implies that politics did this one in. "Gee, I wonder what the difference was [compared to those films]?" the piece asks sarcastically. (Never mind that those two movies were sequels based on a huge Robert Ludlum franchise.)

And in a New York Times op-ed column today, Ross Douthat faults "Green Zone" for "refus[ing] to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a 'Bush lied, people died' reductionism." (Incidentally that's not true -- sure, there's a one-note Paul Bremer-Douglas Feith character played by Greg Kinnear. But the movie is rolling in nuance and is particularly adept at showing internecine Iraqi tribal politics, something no scripted feature has previously done well.)

But even accepting Douthat's one-dimensionality argument, it's hard to see how that played a role in the picture's dismal box office. Douthat draws a contrast to a little Iraq movie that just swept the Oscars. " 'The Hurt Locker,' of course, was largely apolitical," he writes. "Throw politics into the mix, and there seems to be no escaping the clichés and simplifications that mar Greengrass’s movie."

But "Hurt Locker," for all of its character study of one outlaw type, was hardly apolitical -- it just showed the effects of politics (a battle whose enemy we don't understand and can't fight) instead of the causes. Yes, Damon speechifies in "Green Zone." But there's an argument to be made that by showing the toll politics has taken, "Hurt Locker" is far more ideological. Besides, it's not like "Hurt Locker" lighted up the box office either, just as Iraq-set movies that are decidedly less political, like "Body of Lies" or "Brothers," underwhelmed too.

"Green Zone" does plenty of things that are policy-neutral. The film traffics in the slipperiness of intelligence-gathering and the shadowy nature of foreign enemies -- a staple of thrillers long before the current Middle East conflict. Even the film's main message -- that the U.S. government bungled the immediate post-war operation -- is a fact that can be tossed off by pretty much any high schooler. Sure, there's a cardboard character and some wooden moments. But the film is not, by most measures, an ideological provocation.

What the film does achieve lies with its formal rigor. Greengrass' masterful editing and neo-verite camera work make us feels like we're in Iraq, for perhaps the first time in a studio feature.  And that may be the true problem: It wasn't the ideology that was the issue for filmgoers, it was that it all just felt so real. And American moviegoers -- as one look at the receipts for "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland" show -- aren't much in the mood for real these days.

It can take months or even years for a movie with difficult subject matter to catch on with the public.  This seems like a syndrome that particularly afflicts Greengrass, who's been the victim of his own success before. The director's "United 93" was condemned by many for some of the same reasons as "Green Zone." "I don't want to feel like I'm on that plane," people said. "Why would I pay money to see that?"

Of course putting us on the plane, just as he puts us in Iraq, is exactly what makes Greengrass so skilled and his movies so great. "United 93" went on to land two major Oscar nominations and do nicely on DVD. Here's hoping "Green Zone's" battle is also far from over.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Amy Ryan and Matt Damon in "Green Zone." Credit: Universal Pictures.

Comments () | Archives (75)

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Great Movie 10/10. Would buy the DVD !! Just saw it today at 10:40 pm.

Actors that are politically active should know that people are paying attention. Their actions and words do push people away.I for one will not pay to go see an actor/actress that comes out and says things that are contrary to my beliefs. As I'm watching them on film, all I think about every time I see them is what they have said and done. Their character doesn't even come out of the film for me. The actor/actress has to be a really great performer or the movie must be really great for me to bypass those thoughts. Mr. Damon has to be careful because he's not that great of an actor to offset the negative feelings he's bringing out in people when they see him.

In my eyes the problem is that we are all so damn tired of that effing war of Bush's that it doesn't matter who the director or star may be or how good the story is, we've seen it all before, way too many times, on TV. If only bad box office could affect foreign policy decisions...

I thought the Bourne movies were brilliant. Matt Damon is one of my favorites. But this flick doesn't have it. It stinks. Pure and simple.

Zeitgeist. That is a word that film makers should understand and why "Green Zone" failed. The zeitgeist today is escape from the harsh realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the economic realities of today, and film makers forget that at their peril. Stallone and Schwarzenegger understood the zeitgeist of the 80s was capitalism vs communism and all their action movies reflect that directly (none more so that Rocky fighting Drago) as did the box office results. Escape is the zeitgeist of today which Cameron totally provided with Avatar. It aint rocket science Hollywood

Here's a hint .. America has no interest in ideological clap-trap. I'm sure this film will do very well in Europe and Venezuela.

Steven Zeitchik, Your writing is so clueless it would take a rebuttal about twice as long to school you, but that is indeed, what is so wrong about Hollywood' slant on the Iraq war. Go get another job, you fell down on this one....

Most people seek escapism at the movies -- and another politically-tainted flick set in the Middle East is NOT what they want...

Your premise is all wrong. I would love to see some Iraq war movies (thunder run anyone?) Just not the tripe made by the blame Anerica first crowd!

People see that we have a Christmas bomber/ that 13 soldiers were killed by an Islamic mutant at Ft Hood and that 9/11 slaughtered 3,000...and yet Damon and the rest of the movie business act as if we aren't in an existential war with Radical Islam...well guess what we are...so BS movies that say "Bush lied etc" continually fail at the box office...big surprise

You people still don't 'get it' and never will. The reason this movie is failing is because the American public is sick of Hollywood propaganda. If JFK was made today, it would fail miserably also. Get over yourselves.

Every moviemaker should ask himself one question -why am I in this business? Formal rigor, masterful editing, nuanced screenplay- why should anyone shell out money to watch a film production course? - who cares if it rejects reductionism? There's nothing to entice a movie goer. Period. No great visuals, score, acting. Nothing. You've seen this story so often it isn't even a story. These are not movies, they're journalistic pieces. I'll pay for a newspaper subscription to read about Iraqi tribal conflict. I won't pay a dime unless the movie is entertaining.

I'm not putting another dime in another left wing actor's pocket again. I support our troops Iraq becoming a democracy. It can be done, and it is being done.

I realize now I was far too complacent in the last election. These dolts are driving us to ruin.

For all his issues, I'd much prefer Bush was back in office too...

Wanted to see it but can't handle Greengrass' shaky camera work. Asked around and was told the shakes were worse than with the last Bourne.

This movie is failing because the majority of Americans do not trust Hollywood to make a military movie without it coming from a leftwing liberal perspective. It's the same reason other military movies have failed: Lion for Lambs, Redacted, Stop-Loss, Body of Lies, to name just a few. Hollywood will continue to try to force these points of view on us despite the track record of rejection and failure.

I don't need to be talked down to by some critic that reads books and/or watches movies for a living. I didn't like it, and clearly I'm not in the minority. I go to the movies to be stimulated or as an escape or to see something magical, not to have liberal politics rubbed in my face from someone that thinks they are better than me. I can watch broadcast news for that. I won't be taking your opinion into account anymore when I go to movies.

I find it amazing that you can point to areas where there is no politics in this movie as somehow being proof that the movie is not political. Have you never heard of the concept of a "theme?" This anti-American film is just one more in a litany of anti-American films which have bombed at the box office. The American people do not want to be lectured to by a group of out of touch uber-liberals, who are cloistered together and protected from the real world by their extreme wealth. Comparisons to "Hurt Locker" failed to note one big difference between them. Hurt Locker was a small movie, with a small advertising budget that did business on the DVD market by word of mouth. Green Zone is a highly publicized movie with a big Hollywood star, and a huge advertising budget. It is a simple rejection of the skewed morality of Hollywood that the anti-American movies are flops. Make a movie where the Americans are heroic and you will see people paying to see it. We are tired of the fraud that is Hollywood, and their Marxist leanings.

ROFL - from the article:

"It can take months or even years for a movie with difficult subject matter to catch on with the public." REALLY?

"It wasn't the ideology that was the issue for filmgoers, it was that it all just felt so real." RIGHT. I could tell this by reading other people's comments here - NOT.

"the film is not, by most measures, an ideological provocation." Let's do a quick check - what's the plot of the movie? Thought so...

There may be a large number of the American people who do not like this or any war, but those same Americans do not like to see their troops over and over portrayed in a negative light, thats why this film and others that have come before it will always fail, no matter how well it is reviewed.

Hollywood liberals really need to get off the anti-military bandwagon and stop making these movies, otherwise they will have flop after flop after flop, which they will always deserve.

sorry but Matt Damon does not have the "look" of someone who spent time in a war zone...

Why not make a movie about how the left turned a liberation from a tyrant into a war? Wars are not won by controlling bridges, having air supremacy or killing enough people. Wars are won when one side decides it is no longer worth fighting. While the left tried to break our resolve at home, they also emboldened the Iraqi fighters by insisting we were there to steal their oil. Remember there wasn't initially much resistance after the goverenment fell. The American death toll grew later.

Why not make a movie about the evil left that went hysterical trying to make sure the Iraqis would keep fighting so we would lose the war? Where is that story?

It took a decade after the Vietnam war ended for the American public to have healed it's great divide enough to embrace one of the most depressing movies of all time, "Platoon."

The truth is, like Vietnam and Platoon, these Iraq-oriented films are still too raw, the topic still too divisive and too current, for the public to truly set aside it's difference and embrace it at face value.

Platoon also had an anti-USA "why are we here?" feel to it but it was a critical and box office success.

Time heals all wounds but in this case, there still hasn't been enough time.

Im not sure why others didnt go see it, but my son and I didnt go see it because we were told that it had an anti-military-left wing spin to it. Plane and simple...And we go see almost all action movies.

The Times can whistle past the graveyard all it wants. The reason the movie failed is that no one wants to pay good money to see a movie that trashes their country during a war. Throw this flick on the burning trash heap where all the other anti-Iraq War movies have ended up. And why is it dispiriting? I'm delighted that it flopped. If the movie studios can't learn their lesson, then I hope they go bankrupt with silly fare like this.

If you want to make a political movie AND make money, you have to dress it up with CGI and blue people and sell it as sci-fi. Maybe next time Matt Damon wants to trash his country, he should get together with James Cameron. James at least knows how to make a buck in the process.

To understand why this movie failed you need look no further than your evening news. Nobody wants to watch the events of Iraq. The news never gave it much coverage because they quickly ascertained that it wasn't good for ratings. So I have to wonder why Greengrass, much less Universal, put so much money behind this effort. As a movie it was the typical Greengrass thrill ride, but with the word Iraq attached to the movie it was doomed from day one.

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