Monday, March 8, 2010

Green Zone

Genre: War (what is it good for)
Premise: A commander of a special military unit goes seeking WMDs in 2003 Iraq.
About: The new collaboration between Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, Green Zone will co-star Amy Ryan and Greg Kinnear. The film opens this Friday. This draft is NOT the shooting script, but rather one of Greengrass’ earlier drafts. Brian Helgeland supposedly came in and did a rewrite, potentially cleaning up a lot of the issues I had with the script. While both drafts focus on the search for WMDs, the book, I’m told, is more about the overall incompetence of the U.S. when they showed up in Iraq after the war. In order for Congress to approve the budget for the rebuilding of the nation, infrastructure “experts” who had little to no knowledge of Iraq, were brought in to set up a temporary government. They did silly things like institute Maryland’s driving code and set up a new tax structure – items that were pretty low on the priority list to a country that was essentially still at war.
Writer: Paul Greengrass (based on “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaren)
Details: 111 pages

Every once in awhile one of these war movies sneaks through and makes some money, but for the most part, nobody wants to see modern war films. They get war on CNN. They get war on the internet. They get war at the water cooler, Twitter, and their cell phones. And after that sustained 24 hour reminder of death, destruction, and mayhem, we’re asked to pay 10 bucks and subject ourselves to the same thing in a movie theater? No thank you. Even Hurt Locker, which is probably the best modern war movie in the last 5 years, and has had a constant Oscar-coverage marketing push for the last 3 months, has barely made 20 million bucks here in the U.S. But I suppose when you have Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass agreeing to reteam for a film, you let them do whatever they want, and work out the marketing kinks later (the advertising campaign does have a certain “If Jason Bourne decided to be in the army instead of becoming a secret agent” feel to it, which is all the more amusing knowing how hard the two probably worked to ensure that it didn’t feel that way).

I just have to say…WMDs? Really? Do we really want to make a movie based on something that’s become a running joke…THREE YEARS AGO? It’s like basing a movie off the joke “NOT!” I can see an SNL skit. But an entire movie?


It’s 2003 and Chief Warrant Officer Miller has been deployed to Iraq after the initial invasion to search out and find WMDs. Miller takes pride in his job and takes his mission very seriously. He’ll do anything it takes to find these weapons of mass destruction. Problem is, not everyone else feels the same way. And that makes doing his job awfully difficult. For example, an initial tip leads him to a likely weapons spot, but when he gets there the building is already being looted by marines. Another tip leads him to some apartments but those have already been cleared by special forces. Miller naively assumed, because finding these weapons was supposedly the whole point to being here, that his team would get some kind of priority. But that isn’t the case. Not by a long shot.

But Miller’s a quick thinker, and he figures if there’s no order, why not make up his own rules? So within hours he’s already disobeying his superiors and following his own leads. Eventually this gets him to a secret meeting with some potentially high-ranking Iraqi officials. He and his men storm the building, and while they aren’t able to get everyone, Miller does get his hands on a very official looking notebook that’s written in some kind of code. He suspects that when decoded, this notebook will be exactly what the U.S. government was looking for - a specific breakdown of where all the WMDs are.

As you can probably guess, it’s not as simple as Miller turning in the book and collecting a medal. There are men in the government just as keen for us not to find these WMDs as there are men who are. Although I was never clear on why, the implication is that there are some sinister figures in our government, so I guess that reasoning will have to suffice. Either way, Miller is faced with a difficult choice: Does he follow orders and give the book up, knowing it will lead to nothing? Or does he go out and try to solve the case himself?

I think we know which one he chooses.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this script that’s very hard to keep up with. The exiled Ahmed Zubaidi, who was kicked out of Iraq decades ago for wanting the country to be free-enterprise, is brought back under the U.S.’s insistence as a way to institute a free-enterprise system behind the face of a man Iraq can identify with. But it’s not clear which team Zubaidi is playing for, as some Americans love him, and others think he’s a fraud. While I suppose this could’ve been interesting, the character felt like a remnant from the book, a half-willed attempt to jam more plot into the story, when in reality, all he did was detract from Miller's mission.

Then there’s Dayne, a female reporter who was clearly added at the studio’s request (need a female!) and whose every uninspired scene exists only to remind us of this fact. Poor Amy Ryan is playing the part and I’m sure she'll do the best she can. But the character’s big moment is basically saying she wants to fuck Matt Damon’s character within 3 seconds of meeting him. So much for the chase. Then again, my dislike of her may have to do with the fact that - YET AGAIN (Ticking Man review) - we have the female character who exists only to "get the story at all costs." Yawn.

Green Zone, in a lot of ways, is like the way Greengrass shoots his films: raw, gritty, and all over the place. Unfortunately that’s not the most inviting way to present a written story. I’m always telling new writers to do the work for the readers. Don’t make them do the work for you. If the reader is constantly trying to keep up with all the information. If he’s checking back to see who the characters are and trying to keep 8 different plotlines sorted out in his head, he's going to be miserable. You’re asking too much – which is exactly what Greengrass does here. We get characters who come and go with no indication if they’re one-and-dones or recurring, forcing us to remember every single person who hits the page. Since they’re all essentially a vague generalization of “army guy" or "Iraqi dude," differentiating between them becomes almost impossible. Which means we’re going back and re-checking names. Which means we’re going back and re-checking plot points. Don’t ever try this as a beginning writer. It’s just plain sloppy.

I think there’s some interesting stuff here, but most of it comes towards the beginning of the script, when Miller lands in Iraq. I wouldn’t call Miller an idealist, but watching him slowly realize that whatever they told him Iraq was going to be like is not at all how it is, was fun to read. I thought it gave a good indication of what any war room or war effort must be like: over-the-top chaos. Nobody on the ground really knows what they’re doing. And they’re taking orders from people who probably don’t know what they’re doing either. Because we only do this kind of stuff once every 10-20 years, it’s no different than any business who only gets to practice once during that amount of time - 10 million things are going to go wrong. It certainly ain’t like it used to be, where you lined up on each side of a field and took turns shooting at each other, that’s for sure. Whatever the case, the interesting stuff was short-lived, as once we got into the meat of the story, the plot was pretty plain (find WMDs) and definitely hampered by the issue that we already know if Miller succeeds or not (assuming we were alive a few years ago and read the papers).

Watching the trailer below, the "Magellan" stuff seems to be Helgeland's doing, and is probably an extension of the "notebook" Miller gets his hands on. Other than that, not too much seems to be different. I’m sure Greengrass’s kinetic camerawork and quick editing will add some energy to this story, but just as a screenplay, it wasn’t for me.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Although the love interest (Amy Ryan’s character, “Dayne”) plays only a tiny part in the story, her motivation is all wrong. Within seconds of meeting Miller, she throws herself at him. I don’t care what genre you’re writing, always make it tough for the guy to get the girl. Scripts are about making it difficult for your character to achieve whatever it is he/she’s trying to achieve. And that rule extends onto the love interest. If your love interest just shows up and says, “I’m yours,” where do you go with the relationship? The journey's already over. Our protag has the girl. If you want drama and conflict in your love story, always make it tough for the guy to get the girl.