In 2000, The Patriot gave us a strong historical fiction were a central character fought against a demonized foe within the boundaries of perhaps the most famous (and technically the first) American historical event. The protagonist, Benjamin Martin, sought both freedom for his country and personal revenge for his family as he took his superhero-like fighting knowledge to the Brits and helped secure victory in a war that actually did take place 244 years ago.
Of course it’s wildly inaccurate, but the story works because, even though we know a lot about the war, we lack a certain specific knowledge of it. The fiction is buried beneath so much history that it all seems plausible. Even if somewhere we realize how fictionalized the account is, it seems at least possible that Benjamin Martin existed and really did do all these brave things. Except maybe stabbing that guy with an American flag. That was a bit much.
The point is, like all good historical fiction, The Patriot works specifically on our own lack of intimate knowledge of the events. It leaves a gap open for us to think that we might just be learning about a historical figure we forgot to study in class. It also works because of the disconnect between the audience and the time – the way people dress, the way people talk, the situations all seem alien to us. The story might as well be completely fiction, and that freedom allows the filmmakers to bend the reality of the events and the people in them to the breaking point without affecting the quality of the film.
Now we see a brand new brand of historical fiction emerging. Call it Current Events Fiction. Social Studies Fiction. Whatever the name, it doesn’t have the cushioning and distance that portraying the 18th century or dressing up actors in Victorian garb does.
Paul Greengrass’s The Green Zone is the first entry bold enough to take not only general events, but achingly recent, specific political moments and transform them as fiction for the screen. He features a cowboy figure in the middle of a conspiracy involving a noticeable lack of WMD in Iraq and even gives the creator of the conspiracy a name and personality – taking the frustration over a nation going to war under bad intelligence (our outright obfuscation if you like) and giving it a face.
We’ve seen shades of this before with World Trade Center and Greengrass’s own United 93. The subtle difference, I think, is that the former has more to do with a building falling down than it does the events that brought it down, and the latter isn’t really fictionalized at all past the point where it’s a perspective built on actual evidence. It’s not like Nic Cage goes after the network who crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, and it’s not like snakes are set loose on what happens to be a hijacked plane used in a true-life tragic event. One is too generic, and the other is too straightforward. With Green Zone, Greengrass shoves a generic action story into a real-world event, and, thus by doing so, tacitly gives that action story real-world consequences.
The film uses history much in the same way other historical fiction films do – distorting it, personalizing it, and using Jason Isaacs as a villain. The noticeable difference in this new brand, however, is also the major source of the problems for the film – problems that were not handled well.
For one, even without direct knowledge of what it was like on the ground in Baghdad at the start of the war, the events are still too fresh in our minds. Most action films use a generic set up – terrorists taking over a building, terrorists taking over an airport, snakes taking over a plane – but in using specific, true, recent historical events, The Green Zone is loaded with the baggage that the event comes with. The wounds it opens up. We all lived through it. We know how it made us feel. While The Patriot can transport us to a time we’ve never known, The Green Zone takes us back only as far as the last time we renewed our driver’s license. A time we know all too well.
The problem is that Greengrass and company can’t resist making the political point. Instead of letting the action and frustration of government entities working against each other create natural drama, the film shoves in lines of dialog here and there that ham-fistedly hammer home what’s already blatantly obvious about it. Not only does the film come with familiar baggage, Greengrass piles even more on top.
The film also benefits from hindsight – since we all now know there were never WMD – but it doesn’t handle that knowledge with any grace. The secondary problem that arises from this is that while the war and its causes are recent enough to be fresh in our minds, they are also old enough to have had a lot of the loose questions answered. We have, for the most part, moved on, and it seems craven to shove the situation back into our mental space when we’ve had a sense of catharsis, especially when we are now focusing on moving forward and finding solutions.
Surprisingly, it’s only small sections of the film that do this. For the most part, the film nails down exactly what it needs to do – placing Matt Damon’s character into tense situations and having him talk or shoot his way through them. For the most part is uses incredible restraint. Sadly, the bulk of the film is still tarnished by a handful of lines that may only be a sentence or two long, but might as well reach right out of the screen as all-too-clever diatribes shouting We Told You So into the fictional universe that’s been created.
Without restraint, some parts of the film start to feel like the cinematic version of Monday Morning Political Quarterbacking. We’ve seen some success in this realm with last year’s Inglourious Basterds, but, again, there was historical distance there, and Hitler is the most iconic villain in the Western world. It’s one thing to attack a figure everyone despises as the embodiment of evil, and another to personify what some people view as a mistake, some view as a lie, some view as internal bureaucratic blundering, some view as simple Machiavellian politics, and some view as out-and-out conspiracy. Such a contentious issue should have been handled with care.
Furthermore, it seems considerably misguided to take the largest government misstep in recent history and fictionalize it to have a central figure who actively sought to create it through lies and deception. Add to that Greengrass’s inability to resist shoehorning wildly generic, high-ethics, gut-punch lines after fantastic action sequences, and you get a failed genre experiment.
What’s worse is that it’s a rookie mistake from a seasoned writer and director. Without those lines, without those slight jabs at the political aspect that’s already so raw on the screen, the movie would have made its point silently and expertly. Instead, some of the best moments are ruined by lines that come off like a high school debate captain still arguing after winning the trophy at last month’s tournament.
On the other hand, the film is moving into new territory. Who’s to say that those same lines wouldn’t have worked (or might have been necessary) if the historical event on screen was the storming of the beach at Normandy or the signing at the Appomattox Courthouse? Essentially, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and Greengrass are simply following the model of a historical fiction where those moral statements have a place and resonate in a grand way. Perhaps it’s simply that they resonate too loudly since we are so close to the echo chamber.
It might just be that the over-the-top action and military sequences don’t balance well with the lines that are lifted from direct quotes and real-life news footage of Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech, but the lesson here seems to be that rewriting history gets more difficult the more recent that history is. The second lesson, considering that the film comes close to being a completely satisfying film, is that it’s possible to do it. Perhaps this new genre is a necessary product of a news-cycle obsessed culture.
To that end, be on the lookout very soon for a movie chronicling how one high-level official organizes a mass overhaul in health care for his own fiendish ends and Matt Damon’s CIA agent character is the only one who catches on in time to shoot a bunch of people to stop it from going through. Or, at least, be on the lookout for entries into what might be an interesting new genre of film.