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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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Pretty simple:

Left-wing nuts like Damon, Obama, and now Hanks do not succeed with our dollars. Tom, you are now a loon! You will lose millions based on your stance, and by the way, episode one of the Pacific sucked!

It failed because it has a weak story and Greengrass overused shaky cam. Making it look too much like Bourne in Iraq didn't help. And I don't know how it can be the 2nd best reviewed movie when it is scoring rotten in RT. Obviously some people liked it, like your writer. But more people didn't.

Although a right winger, I still gave the movie a 6. The action was not bad and production values (except the fakey looking CG helos) good. The scenes between the Special Forces soldiers and Miller were poorly directed and looked forced. Damon delivered a solid performance overall, but the actor playing Eddie nearly stole the show. Greengrass's shakey cam was not as bad as expected, but he'll not the get tripod award anytime soon.

The movie is failing because the theme is anti-US and word of mouth, having gone viral last week, clearly conveys that message. Anti-US movies fail among normal people. The Hollywood left acts as though this theme does not exist in this film. Are they blind or stupid or both?

If anyone wants a successful movie about soldiers in Iraq, have Michael Mann write and direct it. His tech advisors are 80%, or better, on target. That number is one of the best in the business.

Though you don't flesh out what outside 'politics' may have tainted the opening of this film, yes -- Damon shot himself in the foot with his tirade against Palin and blind support of Obama. Stars need to be stars again -- not people with opinions.... in my opinion.

But HURT LOCKER wasn't about Iraq. It was about bombs. There's a big difference -- though it didn't do gangbusters at the box office, either.

It doesn't matter if the movie is apolitical or not. The marketing made it look like a right wing conspiracy film and the vast majority of movie goers are not interested.

this review is filled with double talk. all the reviews I saw and heard did focus on "bush lied - people died".

the real story is that even though bush was mistaken about WMD, he was correct in his belief that the effort to establish democracy in the heart of the Arab Muslim world, as imperfect as Iraq is now, would be worth the effort. (yes, this was one of the reasons he gave for the war)

it is very likely that history will in the end praise bush for his foresight. a movie about how we won in Iraq would have brought in millions of people and millions and millions of dollars

I left United 93, and won't be watching Green Zone for a long time. The reason for my reaction to the latter is clear enough: I don't need yet another anti-US government diatribe. I see enough Matt Damon, Danny Glover and Sean Penn in the print media, thank you.

Barely related: the camera-shake that Greengrass insists on using makes me nauseous.

P.s. I'm not another "right wing loony from flyover country". I don't live in the US.

Consider that Green Zone failed because it doesn't come across as something that needs to be seen in a movie theater, as is the case with a great number of films being released in today's climate of online streaming, On-Demand, Netflix, pay cable, DVDs being released six months after a film's debut in the theaters, etc. Going to see a movie today is a very expensive endeavor. Studios need to convince me why I should shell out money not only for a ticket (average price is about $12 in Los Angeles) but for parking, concession stand snacks, a potential meal before or after and possibly a babysitter. Add all that up and a trip to see a movie ain't cheap, especially in today's trying economic times. Avatar I knew I had to see in the theater because I wouldn't get the same experience at home. Same with Alice in Wonderland or the Harry Potter films. These are movies that are made for the (public) Big Screen as opposed to the increasingly sophisticated, high-tech home theater set ups that can almost mimic a movie-going experience, at least where basic dramas are concerned. Comedies are typically better when seen with others so they still have a draw for bringing people to the theaters. But My Sister's Keeper? Or Revolutionary Road? I can just as easily wait for these stories to appear in my NetFlix que and save my pennies for the sequel to Star Trek.

i think all that talk about the politics of green zone sinking it are bull. most people do not know the politics of the movie without seeing it; the trailer doesn't give any of it away.

the reasons why i think it bombed are:

its a ripoff of the bourne series (in style and action) ironically,, maybe if it didn't have the same director and actor, it wouldnt seem like it.

on that note, the bourne series is already showing signs of wear and to have a fascmile of it deterioriates its appeal further

its an iraq war movie. i have no idea why hollywood keeps making these. people can hear about iraq anytime and i mean anytime they turn on the news. iraq is part of the reality people go to the movies to forget. guess hollywood didn't get the memo which is a shame since there are a ton of great unproduced scripts out there that could've filled the slot

and finally, and ironically, i think its because of the success on DVD of the hurt locker. people were probably getting their fix of the hurt locker when green zone opened. why go to the movie when theres a best picture nominee and then winner - and is proven to be good, and is fresh and new and not a bourne rip off - as close as the local video store?

50% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes didn't like the film. How does that make it the second best reviewed film this year?

I can't believe you don't see your own lack of integrity in your defense of this piece of scat. I dare you to right another positive film review that includes "one-note" to describe one actor's performance and tells me how the lead actor's character "speechifies". You cede the intellectual high ground to the NYT by offering such a weak argument against their rather insightful one word review: reductionism. I have another one word review to describe "Green Zone" and much of Damon's "work": derivative. That's because "Green Zone" will be in the DVD bargain bin before "Hurt Locker" finishes its second run in theaters.

Joseph Cooke makes some good points. Most of all, if you talk to soldiers coming back from Iraq you will find that THEY aren't politicizing what they do. This film lacks the same heart and soul that was lacking in all the other mentioned below.

The movie was junk because the enemy was our own government and military. You're supposed to cheer when the Iraqi terrorists shoot down US military helicopters. Even in the age of Obama, that is a bridge too far.

People trying to kill Americans are not Douglas Feith or someone at the CIA (who are too busy covering their behinds or indulging in PC protective cover). It's guys from Nigeria wanting to blow up their crotches and the plane they are on. Or guys preaching Jihad in the military who go on to kill 14 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

Shaky cam did not help, neither did a cliched script. But no one believed the villain or the plot-line (the insurgents were "created" by the US government who failed to make a deal with one Big Man and tried to kill its own people). In reality, PC and Multi-culti propaganda let jihadis run amok and kill lots of Americans. Just like last time.

I just don't see why anyone would want to watch a movie about any war in progress, but especially this one. The newspapers and web remind me every day that we're killing so called terrorists and their wives and children by remote control driven by some obscure theory that by killing them over there they won't come over here. A false premise since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. I tell you what.....if there were foreign troops roaming the streets of my neighborhood, killing my neighbors, I'd pick up a gun and make bombs to defend my home. That's what I see in the Middle East - people fighting the American infidel oppressors. Nope...don't wanna see that movie no matter who the star.

Why 'Green Zone' failed?

Because Matt Damon is a SISSY-BOY and never was in the military!

The problem with the American People is that they refuse to accept the fact that all wars are "political". Though war really is an extension of diplomacy when negotiations have failed, they believe there is still some nobility to be found in fighting for one's country.

So, when Hollywood tries to simplify any Iraq War movie with "Bush lied" or try to inflict their personal politics on the audience, the public will decide to spend their money on another movie or stay home and watch "American Idol".

The exception was, "The Hurt Locker". Despite the reviewer's lame assertation that the movie was political also, the movie going audience did not perceive it as one. Despite it's many flaws and the false depiction of how it really is on the ground in Iraq, it accuarately portrayed the tension, danger and attitudes you would find in any war .

As for comments from "August" about Matt Damon's manhood - Right on brother! You pegged it!

Matt, don't spend six years bad mouthing a war-effort and then expect people to throng to the theater as you try to make a buck off of it....Come on....are you kidding me? The people...are really getting sick of the Hollywood Elite saying and doing one thing and then trying to make a buck off of the things that they so ferociously will rail against.....

The reason I won't watch green zone or any other Bourne movie?
Shaky cam!

From fight scenes and car chases in movies, to music videos, and to halftime shows at sporting events, can we please just see the whole big picture, and not the perspective of some maniac waving a handheld camera in the performers face?

It bombed because Americans are sickened by, and do not want to be reminded of, the worst and stupidest mistake the US has ever made. Repubs see the Iraq war as the main cause of the destruction of their party, and Dems and Independents already know all this stuff and don't find it entertaining. Our economy is in shambles as a direct result of this misguided effort - who needs to go to the movies to be reminded of that?

I largely agree with this commentary. However, is NO ONE bothering to proofread at the LA Times anymore?

"And yet no matter deftly it was executed"

"as one look at the receipts..."


If it's Matt Damon starring in a film about the CIA, the Army or any American agency, it will be ANTI-AMERICAN and I wouldn't bother ever going no matter how great it is.
Too bad Matt! I hope your films always bomb.

Actually, it failed because it was a war movie billed as a spy/action movie like the Bourne series. I went to see it and felt that I was misled. I would not recommend it to people who don't like war movies.

I'm fascinated by the number of people complaining about Paul Greengrass's shaky-cam style and hyperkinetic editing. I think Michael Bay and a few other filmmakers should also be added to that list.

The hyperactive, wobbly camera has become such a cliche. I wish directors would rediscover the pleasures of well-composed, steady shots, and precise editing that doesn't cut and move just for the sake of seeming "edgy."

I would love to know how much the style really deterred the general public from seeing "Green Zone." At the end of the day, I don't think many people want to watch a movie about Iraq/Afghanistan regardless of how well made it is. (By the way "Brothers" is about Afghanistan.)

That said, I think the reflexive right-wing backlash is also a little too predictible and unjustified. The Bush Administration made a lot of epic mistakes in Iraq, and I say this as a registered Republican. It's not just lefties like Matt Damon who didn't sip the Bush Kool-Aid. My cousin, who served as a Marine scout in Fallujah and was wounded by an IED, came back thinking the there wasn't a whole lot of a point to us being there.

Hollywood making a movie that points out the Bush Administration's mistakes is not unAmerican unless you think being American requires blind loyalaty to the administration in charge. I certainly don't believe I'm unAmerican because I'm not blindly supporting Obama.

When a you sees a movie that touches upon controversial events and themes, you have a choice. You can see the movie as first and foremost as a movie, and then think about the politics, second. Or, you can walk around like some oversensitive PC activist and see politics in everything, and never even get to the point of enjoying the movie.

For me, I really enjoyed the movie as a action-suspense thriller. I'll watch Glenn Beck if I want to think about politics, first.

The author misses a big reason why the film failed.... It's over reliance on a movie star and action formula. I personally think Matt's a great guy, but c'mon, he hangs out in Hollywood. Americans are quite sophisticated today, and nobody buys it any longer when they see a movie star fighting in Iraq... especially since almost every american knows someone who really served.

For the last eight years we've all turned on the t.v. and seen it live. To see a wealthy star running around with a m-4, karate chopping bad guys, especially right after the oscars, well, it all looks so fake and predictable. Get some unknown actors, make it look real and gritty and you get... surprise....the Hurt Locker.

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