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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.

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Great article!
From the majority of these comments I gather that Americans are an escapist people at heart. They'd rather consume the empty calories of American Idol or some comedy, than face their own mistakes and learn from them to make their country better. When arrogance trumps diligence and self-questioning the result is a crash, just like what happened on Wall Street. I don't wish that to happen to this great country!
With China and India surpassing the US economically, and US money going down the drain in unnecessary wars, we will soon be third in line in the world power equation. Where has the hard working and humble spirit of our founding fathers gone?? It is the foundation that made this country so great.

My husband, an Iraq war vet and retired military, went to see the movie Saturday. He was told it was along the lines of the 'borne identity'. The movie infuriated him. How many people were suckered into seeing this movie?? At least the word is out and it won't make much more money than it already has.

"The Green Zone" flopped for two simple reasons that are clear to just about everyone except your reviewer. (1) Greengrass's reliance on non-stop hand-held camerawork -- a technique he deployed so brilliantly in the Bourne movies --makes this one a complete headache to watch. (2) The movie's cliche-leftist political agenda is an insult to anyone's intelligence. One example will suffice: The major-newspaper reporter played by Amy Ryan. This character, who is manipulated by a scheming government insider to promote the presence of WMD in Iraq, is said to work for the evil Wall Street Journal, when in fact the real-life reporter she transparently represents -- Judith Miller -- was employed by -- hello! -- the New York Times. It should also be noted that your reviewer's resorting to the the semi-obscure "Movie Review Intelligence" site in order to sell this film as a critical success is a preposterous manipulation, when the far more widely-consulted Rotten Tomatoes aggregating site scores it as a bomb.

Steven Zeitchik needs to take a slow road trip across the country. He literally has NO CLUE what most in flyover country think. His thesis seems to be who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes. I'd rather have a hemmoroid operation than give money to a leftwing loon like Matt Damon who finances his rants with other peoples money. Little Matt, and I know that to be a fact, is headed for the box office thrash heap. And for the suckers who financed this bomb, bwaaahaaaaa. Too funny.

Two things this article fails to take into account:

1. The statement that it got good reviews and that equals that it's a good movie. I read the reviews. I think at least 50% of the good reviews were only good because the reviewer liked the politics of the movie. Just because liberal reviewers give a movie a pass because they agree with it's politics does not mean it's a good movie.

2. The unpopularity of Matt Damon. Matt Damon has opened his big, fat, uneducated mouth about things he doesn't really understand, but heard from his equally uninformed friends at some Hollywood dinner party, several times too many. Not only is he ignorant when he speaks, but he's snarky and mean. We don't like him. The 80% of people who don't self identify as liberal don't like him and don't really want to watch him in a movie, especially a anti US movie.

3. This movie has tried to pass itself off as fact, when we know it's fiction. You can't try to rewrite history, claim it's true, and expect us to believe it. We're not that dumb.

4. The "unwashed masses" weren't as dumb or as unpatriotic or as critical of the USA as they wanted us to be.

It's a WMD conspiracy Bush-bashing movie, Steve. That is so yesterday. The movie was dated before it was even made. What's nuance to you, a liberal LA Times entertainment columnist, is fingernails on a blackboard to most Americans, and as stale as can be. Who wants to watch movies that are essentially the worst sort of Lefty HuffPo/Michael Moore anti-Bush tripe??

If one war movie can succeed where all others fail, it is the upcoming LONE SURVIVOR, to be directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom). That movie is essentially a tribute to American courage, bravery and heroism under extreme fire. Now there's a new concept for Hollywood. A movie that actually praises those who give their all to protect us and those in foreign lands while fighting a savage enemy that knows no rules. Besides liberal LA Times columnists, that is?

It's the politics. I will never pay for another Matt Damon movie until he recants and apologizes for his America hating. He should move, along with all of his socialist friends, to a socialist country, practice what he preaches and leave us alone.

I refuse to support people who hate me and my Constitution...it is not their Constitution, they are trying to destroy it and usurp our liberty.

Best regards,
Gail S

You call it "neo-verite'". I call it shaky-cam, and it makes me want to vomit. That aside, I do not see why the money lesson is so hard to learn: people in this country do not want to see non-heroic war films. Period.

Dear Steven,

To answer your question - Hollywood is so anti-america - that the rest of the country does not want to see this BS - so you liberals will continue to be unhappy.

Can Hollywood promise me a film on the Iraq war where America is shown as really corrupt and immoral? Where I can cheer the death of lots of American evil soldiers? Where I can spend a few hours sitting in the dark and feeling really dirty? Yeap, this is what I want to spend my entertainment dollars and free time on.
So far Hollywood has not disappointed. Film after film has met those criteria so why not go to another Action Flick where Iraq is central. Take a flyer, Hell it's only $20 or $30 bucks if you take a friend.

How good a movie it is has nothing to do with why people did not go to see it. Most of us are tired of giving money to people who want to destroy the greatest country in the world. The one that has made them rich. It is disgusting to true Americans. I for one will not go to another movie ever unless it is made by someone outside of Hollywood.

Puleeeeze, give me a break. Matt Damon is a liberal idiot who can sometimes imitate other people adquately, but his leftist politics are now well known. Hollyweird makes these anti-American films and TV programs, and then wonders why the fail? Get a clue, we don't like this chit, period.

Green Zone failed because (a) it cost too much to make (over $100 million when no Iraq film has made that at the box office) and (b) it starred Matt Damon. Despite attempts to make him a star, he's really not. He's a well known actor, he's not a star. The Bourne movies are his only blockbusters. Maybe he can move over to TV or stick to the independent films.

Bombed because it was anti-American and we're sick of all the left-wing crud.
In contrast, Alice in Wonderland, which succeeded, in many ways is a metaphor for modern USA under our Marxist-Alinsky-ite rulers. Pelosi is the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter resembles many in Congress and White House, while Alice is the average working American(s) whom media elites scorn and call "teabaggers" ("Teabagging" a term that best describes an unsavory sexual act most typically performed by perverts, mostly registered Democrats, in hook-up bathhouses). The same crowd that made Passion a huge hit years back and Leno's ratings so good now feels connected to the relevant fantasy and as disconnected from left-leaning anti-American crap like Green Zone as we are from Congress under the dictatorship of leftist scum like Piglosi and Oba-Mao. We don't want to waste our money supporting our nation's enemies domestic

I didn't see the movie, nor have I heard any word-of-mouth about it. But from the first commercial, I knew that I wouldn't waste my time or money to see it.

Your assessment of Americans not being interested in watching any 'reality' about Iraq or 9/11 may be true.

However, I believe that the majority of Americans are also completely sick of hearing Matt Damon and others with their anti-Bush, anti-America rhetoric.

After all, that message is old and worn out. Plus, we get more than enough of it from Obama anyway.

And that's why this movie is a failure.

Matt Damon is one of the stars on my no watch list. No pun intended; My list was years in the forefront of the no fly. I may not be fair observer but what I saw was a movie publicized as Jason Bourne in the desert. However, as one paid attention to the promo it became apparent that it was an anti CIA movie. I personally can think of many activities and movies I would see before spending two hours on this dribble, No matter how one dress it up and the constant comparison to previous Anti Bush Anti War movies, people have better things to do. Even the mentioning of the Hurt Locker leaves one glaring fact: No one saw the movie.

WOW! I love reading all these comments from people who def havent seen the movie... As far as movies go, GREEN ZONE IS A GREAT MOVIE THATS ACTION PACKED. THIS DAMON MOVIE WILL KEEP YOU ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT WHILE ALSO BEING THOUGHT PROVOKING!

I read another article about this movie being a flop but still went and saw it, in fact i just got back from the 10:00pm showing.

This is a movie that shoves truth in your face, WE WERE LIED TO! Get Over It! We are lied to everyday by the gov. Big deal, dont slam a great movie just because it reminds of that! POLITICS KILLED THIS MOVIE NOT BAD FILM-MAKING.

You keep saying this film failed in spite of it's great story line. That makes it sound as though word of mouth killed it. I disagree it failed because nobody went to see it at all.

It has nothing to do with the fact that it is "too real." The public is simply not interested in a movie it perceives as anti-U.S. and/or anti-military and that is exactly how it came off in it's trailer and advertising.

The sooner Hollywood realizes this the sooner it can stop losing millions on such drivel.

People stayed away from this movie because we already have the news media, blogs and other resources to tell us everything we need to know about the war in Iraq. We've been dealing with this war for 7 years. We've got all the information, we've heard every side of everyone's story, we've had all the arguments, and nothing anyone can do at this piont will change anyones attitudes, pro- or anti-. Note to Hollywood: We ARE grownups, you know; we can make up our own minds, You are like an annoying little brat constantly interrupting a serious discussion among adults. How about going away?

Zeitchik writes:

[But "Hurt Locker," for all of its character study of one outlaw type, was hardly apolitical...]

But it wasn't OVERTLY political, either.

And Green Zone was. And propagating left-wing politics at that.

Maybe if writers at the LAT could get out of the echo chamber for two seconds, conduct a focus group of the first-run movie-viewing public, they just might discover the majority of them reject the kind of nonsense put forth in Green Zone.

Or you could just look at the box office returns for Green Zone.

In either event, there's a lesson to be learned.

Have you actually seen it? It's amazing, GREEN ZONE ROCKS! I don't know what you people are going on about. It's not anti-American, in fact, Damon's character is as American as one can get. As for the folks on here going after Greengrass's "shaky cam", seriously, you are just grasping at straws to accommodate your own political agenda when you haven't actually seen Green Zone. Lazy reporting. This is an awesome action movie and YES the invasion of Iraq was a mess, but it wasn't a military cluster-F, it was a political one. THIS FILM IS ALL ABOUT SUPPORTING THE TROOPS!!!! DAMON'S CHARACTER IS JUST TRYING TO SHAKE DOWN SOME TRUTH. I'M SORRY IS THAT NOT ALLOWED????? SEE the movie before you judge it. I loved it and YES, I served and so did my father (who also loved the movie).

The Green Zone did NOT fail at the box office because of some political anger by right-wingers as these derelicts commenting here. It failed because most people going to the theater in this economy only go with their kids or its mainly teenagers. Thus, horror films like twilight and kids movies like harry potter, avatar, alice in wonderland, etc are doing excellent at the box office. Movies for adults like romantic chick flicks are barely managing, and serious adults films that require thought are all struggling big time.

This is just one more example of the people's disgust of these hollywood types who think because they are famous that they can throw around and their political views and people are gullible. True there are gullible people but these hollywood types are more gullible for believing that they are actually smart enough to sway people's political views. This is the Palin effect. As soon as Damon made fun of her, his career will never go back to the Pre-Palin days. All you hollywood types, take note of this. Remember what happened to the Dixie chicks?

I'm not giving my money to see US troops mocked. They're not perfect as is no war but these people put their lives on the line to serve their country. Glad of its failure

To begin, I am a die hard American patriot who would do anything for this country . I have not served in the military, but have close family and friends who have, and by most accounts I am far from 'left' or 'liberal'. With that said I must say this is one of the most exciting, and challenging, movies I have seen in quite a while.

Anyone willing to take the time and research the chronology of events, reports from domestic and international sources and the current status of the actual conflict should be able to see how the Green Zone provides one of the most insightful and straight forward depictions of the conceptual problems faced before, during and after the initial invasion.

Anyone calling this movie anti-American is unable to face the general reality in which we all actually live. This movie depicts several points of view, out of very many, about intricacies that lead up to our initial invasion of Iraq and attempts to confront certain facts as we know them today. What people need to realize is not everything our country, or any other country, does is always 100% right and 100% fair to everyone involved. So if someone is willing to bring light to areas that most people would rather not see then one can understand why the mass does not accept the end product.

Green Zone delivers a suspenseful story, quality action and many well thought out sub plots. I would recommend anyone who is interested in any aspect of our military operations, our presence around the world or the actions of our government to see this movie.

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