The Hurt Locker vs. Green Zone

by Lewis Manalo

Can the two movies even compare? The Hurt Locker posits itself as a realist, apolitical worm’s-eye view of the war in Iraq. Green Zone is a montage film with a grievance to air. It’s the critical response to each movie that makes me think I’m taking crazy pills.

Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker? You kidding me? What motivates this love-fest? Is it simply the desire to talk about the Iraq War without having to say anything? There isn’t even any action in that action movie.

Every war vet in creation agrees that The Hurt Locker is as fake as it gets, even if they say they like it. Bigelow uses character types that are as broadly-written as Juan del Diablo from the telenovela Corazon salvaje, and her supposed realism (that people as educated as A.O. Scott would call the film “hyperbolic realism” instead of “ridiculous” shows her great technique – he still owes me a car explosion) simply uses the war in Iraq as a vehicle for her own examination of masculinity. Her story would’ve worked a lot better if she had played it as the fantasy that it is and gone all-out and set it on an alien planet.

Green Zone uses the kind of montage that would’ve made Eisenstein proud, but it also uses the same kind of character typing that Eisenstein’s aesthetic forced him to use. Matt Damon’s character is a cypher who’s duty-bound to find The Truth. Amy Ryan is the Reporter. Kinnear is the Corrupt Politician. Abdalla’s character represents the Iraqi citizenry.

The resulting film is thrilling and draws you in, but it’s not something that will have you feeling anything for the characters because there are none.  The use of character types is analogous to the characterization one finds in propaganda movies.  Even the use of war veterans on-screen has been a staple of propaganda films since Audie Murphy re-lived his Medal of Honor-winning insanity.  (I do give props to Green Zone‘s production for at least giving jobs to veterans).

Interestingly, Greengrass uses these propaganda techniques, traditionally used in pro-war cinema, to make a different political statement.  I won’t side with Kyle Smith to say that Green Zone is anti-American.  I won’t even say that it’s anti-war.  I won’t even say that Green Zone makes much of a political statement at all.  Watching Green Zone feels more like going over a laundry list of the world’s mistakes rewritten to tell a tighter story: internal politics will always screw things up, we shouldn’t have disbanded the Iraqi Army, we shouldn’t have brought in some outsider to “rule” Iraq, we should’ve checked our sources for the WMD intelligence.

(Greengrass makes sure the Reporter realizes she should’ve done her damn job and checked her sources. You really dropped the ball on that one, Fourth Estate. We were depending on you. Now look how many amateurs are doing your job even less responsibly on blogs.) The problem with this Monday morning quarterbacking is that Green Zone‘s quasi-political statement doesn’t bring anything new to the table. We already knew this stuff, Greengrass just tells it in a more exciting (and less factual) way.

It is incredibly ironic that the movie boldly using the propaganda techniques is the one with the more realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a soldier. Benefiting from employing veterans, Green Zone has the realistic military tactics when A.O. Scott’s realist film has the most outrageously bogus tactics since John Wayne stormed a pill box all on his lonesome.

Also, Green Zone better illustrates the real conflicts a soldier has to put up with: you’ve got too many bosses telling you what to do, none of them are right, but all of them want to make sure you look good for the cameras.  The soldiers in Green Zone are truly fucked because of their chain of command, because of their inability to work well with other units, and because of politics.  Of the two movies, Green Zone‘s the film that remembers that the war in Iraq is a media war.

The soldiers in The Hurt Locker operate in some bubble removed from the chain of command, removed from working in conjunction with other units, and removed from politics – which too many sensible people praised.  A.O. Scott even goes so far as to say that soldiers “are too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there.”

No, dude.  American soldiers are Americans first.  They care about what the hell they’re going for war for because they care about their country.  This ain’t no “theirs is not to reason why” bullshit.  How elitist can you be?  Let’s praise the soldier, sailor, and marine for his or her patriotism, but let’s not imagine that said patriotism extends to political awareness.  Let’s reinforce the idea of war being a tool of politics and let’s treat servicemembers like the tools that they are.  Scott’s attitude, shared by millions, is where the acclaim for The Hurt Locker comes from.  This attitude reinforces untruths and stereotypes about soldiers that those removed from war feel comfortable believing.

Unfortunately, with its use of character types, the portrait of soldiers being screwed is not the emphasis of Green Zone.  Too bad Matt Damon didn’t have more of a character to play, or Green Zone might’ve been a movie that said something. Still, Green Zone is the superior film. Even with all its baroque stylization, perhaps because of it, Greengrass’ film ends up being more authentic.  And it’s the action movie that actually has action in it.

Kathryn Bigelow has basically given us a movie that eschews views on masculinity that we already read in Oates’ On Boxing, and we thought they were ridiculous then. Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone criticizes the flaws in our political system that brought us to war, but we already knew they were there. Both films are extremely well-crafted by extremely gifted directors, but neither film has the sincerity or the originality to be art.

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Kathryn Bigelow’s writing school:

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