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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.