'Green Zone' is pedal to the metal, honest

Over the last several years, audiences have sent filmmakers the message that Iraq as a subject is too close to those realities from which we would prefer to turn away. But no longer.

With the huge success of 'The Hurt Locker" and the recent release of "The Green Zone," enough time has clearly passed wherein writers can now mine all the permutations of that painful and controversial war for source material.

"The Green Zone," though very different from "The Hurt Locker," is excellent filmmaking. It's not so much a character study as a pedal-to-the-metal narrative with sustained, palpable tension combined with a script that is honest and substantive.

The movie is set in the first weeks of the invasion of Baghdad, 2003, and focuses on a small unit assigned to find the much-reported (and promised) weapons of mass destruction. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), the squad, using what it is told is reliable intelligence, finds only empty warehouses and abandoned factories — no WMD.

Gradually, with building frustration and understanding, Miller soon finds himself well beyond that place where he will find a clear and unambiguous answer to his oft-asked question: If WMD are not in Iraq, then why did we go to war?

He is ensnared, instead, in a web of conflicting objectives, a riptide of cross-purposes between the agenda of the CIA and the emphatic spin of the Pentagon.

Director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "United 93") is a master at creating sustained, controlled chaos. And Damon is superb at conveying a clipped, decisive, focused calm as all around him is devolving into pandemonium.

Using a handheld steadicam, which creates an involving sense of cinema verité, the director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, crafts scene after harrowing scene of unyielding suspense. Filmed in Morocco and Spain, the film captures the claustrophobic warrens of Baghdad's inner city.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland relied on Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2006 "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" to give his script a sense of verisimilitude, conveying superbly those first weeks of the war after Saddham Hussein had gone into hiding and Baghdad was beginning its decent into anarchy and internecine warfare. As the film illustrates, the administration declared "Mission Accomplished." The reality, as depicted in "The Green Zone," was something far different.

The White Ribbon

"The White Ribbon," nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (from Germany), was the winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes and is directed by Michael Haneke ("Cache"). It is artful, superbly cast and beautifully photographed in stark black and white.

The year is 1913, on the cusp of World War I. The film opens with a lovely shot of farmers and villagers harvesting the summer wheat, followed by a celebration heralding the end of one season and the beginning of another. It's tempting to romanticize this bucolic setting, a small town surrounded by the flat expanse of rural northern Germany, filled with hardworking people whose lives follow the rhythms of the land.

But then Haneke grimly pulls back a curtain and reveals that behind this seemingly benign image is a bleak and cruel reality that is astonishing in its severity. There is no overt violence in the film except for a set piece in the first minutes of act one when a doctor, riding home on his horse, is brought down by an all but invisible trip wire. At first the incident, called an accident, seems an aberration. But then other events take place of equal premeditation, testimony to the fact that a malevolent and mysterious perpetrator resides in the village.

Though these chilling acts of violence are linchpins throughout the film, what is far more disturbing is the authoritarian, patriarchal cruelty leveled against the village's children. The adults, charged with loving them, are so consistently perverse in their anger and punishments that it's as if we're watching and exorcism of their childhood innocence and innate empathy, carried out with an endemic ignorance and righteousness and malice that is disturbing to watch.

The village pastor, blinded by his own narrow Protestantism, in a particularly unsettling scene, ties white ribbons around the arms of his children as reminders that they have violated his trust, betrayed their purity, and disappointed their parents. He will not remove the ribbons until they have demonstrated that they are pure once again. The ribbons torment the children and are reminders of the hypocrisy and heartlessness of those adults to whom the children look for protection and, yes, love.

The film also answers Haneke's own question: is the heart of man inherently dark, a desiccated geography, absent any overriding humanity that will act as a counterbalance to evil? His answer is, in frame after frame, an unequivocal yes. He also asks the audience to extrapolate from the microcosm of this small village to the fascism that eventually gripped all of Germany — wherein millions were killed because of a reflexive response to the uber-fascist-father, Hitler, who turned Germany into a gnarled and pathological nation not dissimilar from the village nor the acts perpetrated against the children.

To contemplate "The White Ribbon" is to feel simultaneously revulsion and admiration. Overly long (almost 21/2; hours), unrelentingly dour and forbidding, it also is unfailingly honest regarding the ability of one generation to do great harm to the next, for reasons that are not limited to one people but to mankind. For some, this film will be more than they want to endure. Others will watch in fascination while simultaneously repelled, perhaps acknowledging, however grudgingly, that Haneke is a superb filmmaker.

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