I have written on Iraq war film before. Here are parts 1 and 2 on the The Hurt Locker.
The Green Zone (GZ) got 54% on rottentomatoes. I would give it an 80%.
This is an awkward film to review because its political content is serious, yet it wraps that in action-movie panache. It’s a war film (serious) that awkwardly treats violence like an action film (fun, exciting), so you’re morally not quite sure what to think. The message, that there was a fair amount of Bush administration shadiness in the 2003 run-up, is accurate. Anyone who has followed the war will absolutely relish the sequence at the swimming pool of the private military contractor in a bikini carrying a machine gun. Hah! I laughed out loud at that one, while the Koreans looked bewildered at me. Unfortunately, there’s too much ‘Jason Bourne goes to Iraq’ excitement to take the message all that seriously.
1. Usually war film reaches for a ‘message’ by portraying violence as tragic and dehumanizing to all involved. I can’t think of a serious war film that portrays war as fun; only idiot portraits of war, like 300, do that. No viewer wants to think he is ‘enjoying’ morally meaningful violence (as opposed to video game/300 violence). It is morally necessary for the viewer to not enjoy the on-screen violence, because that would trivialize the political message and generate huge internal conflict in the viewer. If the viewer gets a rush from the on-screen action, the moral effect is more like a cool video-game sequence from your favorite shooter. So in Apocalypse Now or Platoon, the action sequences are never a video game-style rush to watch. Instead they are framed, with somber music frequently, to make the viewer reflect seriously, and presumably agree with the directors that the Vietnam war was an error.
2. By contrast, action movies that want you to enjoy the frenzy and violence must make the bad guys ridiculous. It is too challenging to show morally realistic (i.e., mixed, not all bad) bad guys suffering from extreme violence. The only way the viewer is morally permitted to enjoy extreme on-screen violence is with cartoonishly evil guys. Good guys dishing out brutal just desserts need really bad Bad Guys. Think about Lord of the Rings or Starship Troopers. Aragorn is astonishingly brutal (beheadings and such), but he is still the hero, because those orc-things are clownishly over-the-top bad guys. (This, btw, is why the LotR films are so empty of real meaning and hence wildly overrated.)
3. This tension is one of the reasons why Black Hawk Down (BHD) is so controversial and so morally flawed. It reaches for seriousness, but then provides an exhilarating action thrill ride for two relentless hours. The film’s replay value is not as a portrait of the BHD event, but as a gripping, visceral action film. So it’s a real war film that people like because for its action movie content. Ugh. Because of course all those Somalis are real people whom our military killed in large numbers. We shouldn’t enjoy watching them get mowed down, but we do. (Student after student has asked me about that films for more than a decade now.) This is a growing problem in the video game industry too.
4. GZ suffers from the same problem. It tries to have it both ways. The movie reaches for depth with a serious political message, but then gives you action sequences that are so exciting and exhilarating to watch, that you aren’t quite sure what to make of it. How can you oppose the Iraq War if Jason Bourne Matt Damon is so gripping to watch?
5. GZ is morally superior to BHD though, because BHD director Ridley Scott clearly took a perverse joy in showing the extreme violence of the story. He was obviously making an action movie, which morally reduces the awfulness of the actual BHD event. My sense of Greengrass (GZ director) is that he included the ‘Jason Bourne goes to Iraq’ sequences to ensure that viewers would come to his film. I.e., the action sequences are the hook to get the viewers to hear the Damon-Greengrass message that the Bush administration rooked us into Iraq.
6. Conservatives have predictably panned the film as Hollywood ideology, and Damon has now made two left-critical takes on the GWoT (the other being Syriana). To which I would only say that such a take on the war is way overdue. The war is still on, so Hollywood probably terrified of being seen as ‘not supporting the troops’ if it were to make films questioning our presence. Hence, most Iraq films have been unwilling to address the central political issues. The overrated Hurt Locker ducked politics altogether, and other Iraq films like Stop-Loss or Lions for Lambs don’t actually get into the central political question: how did we get there on such false premises? The only film yet to dig somewhat is Oliver Stone’s W – where Bush is shown telling Blair that the war is on regardless what the UN does. But Stone’s reputation today is too far gone, especially with conservatives, for his work to establish real credibility. So I welcome GZ, even if it isn’t really close to the best US war film.
7. I can’t imagine that anyone today, knowing what they know now, would still counsel the war. (This is not to say that that the 2003 decision was wrong given 2003 information; only that with 2010 information, it is hard to endorse the 2003 decision.) So it is important that our film – which is a far more widely shared social media than books or journalism – begin to investigate the war’s origins. In the same way that our best war film has looked back at Vietnam and told us difficult things we don’t like to think about US power, the GZ will hopefully start the process on Iraq. To all those conservatives who love to hate Hollywood on the Iraq war, remember that self-criticism is a central American political value too.
I would love to hear your take on Syriana. 🙂
I thought it was excellent – nuanced, intelligent, far more willingly to critically look at the military-industrial complex than most US war film, while simultaneously showing how incredibly corrupt Arab governance is. I reference it in my courses far more than ‘Black Hawk Down,’ the preferred film of the right-wing, ‘let’s-kick-some-skinny-ass’ set.
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