‘The Informant!’ Puts a Comedic Spin on an Insanely True Story

The Informant movie poster

“This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there!”

-opening disclaimer

The Informant!” is not just your typical corporate corruption film in which the main characters are on a mission to uncover the truth and expose wrongdoings. The movie is really about getting to the truth of who Mark Whitacre is. As the film goes on, we find he is not only being dishonest to everyone around him, but also to himself. Whitacre ends up being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which makes clear how far his mental health has unraveled. Soderbergh gets us to trust Whitacre along with Damon, and the rest of the movie involves us getting deeper into his psyche. Whitacre doesn’t just deceive his employees, he deceives the audience watching this movie as well.

Much has been said about how Damon went all Robert De Niro (or Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale) on this role by putting on 30 pounds and a mustache to play Whitacre. But he more than succeeds in bringing an everyman quality to this role which is not at all easy with a star like him, known for his good looks (the term actor fits him better anyway). It certainly sets his character apart from Jason Bourne, who Whitacre is clearly not like (he does liken himself to James Bond though). Damon has never been given a role like this before, and it should be considered further proof he is a better actor than many give him credit for.

Soderbergh’s decision to give “The Informant!” a comic tone is an interesting choice, and it is a reminder of how he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Earlier in 2009 he gave us one of his indie film experiments, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which starred Sasha Grey. While this one was done on a bigger budget, my understanding is he shot it almost as fast (30 days to be exact) perhaps because the studio wasn’t sure if people would see it or not. Looking more closely at the script, this could have been Soderbergh’s “Michael Clayton,” but he had taken this story, the kind we see in the papers every day, and made it into something a little different. While the tone is a bit inconsistent throughout, and you are not sure of how amusing the film is meant to be, that may be the whole point of this cinematic endeavor.

The humor throughout is very dry, and it sticks in your throat for good reason. Whereas everyone here looks like they are having a blast with the material, you have to remind yourself once in a while that “The Informant!” is, yes, “based on a true story” and that Whitacre’s conviction gave him a prison sentence three times longer than those he exposed. This may be one of those movies designed to thwart expectations as it has been promoted and advertised as a full out comedy. Still, it is not meant to be a laugh a minute comedy like “Airplane!

When all is said and done, “The Informant!” really belongs to Damon as much as it does to Soderbergh. As Whitacre, Damon never looks like he is just acting or simply doing an impersonation. This is also clearly not a performance that stopped at the physical appearance, but one which really gets into the inner trappings of this bio-chemist’s mind. From start to finish, we keep hearing Damon’s narration about the little things he knows and what he makes of the people around him. I somehow figured this would all lead to a big realization at the film’s climax, but it really illustrates the deteriorating state of Whitacre’s mind. Damon actually makes you empathize with this man even while he comes across as a Bernie Madoff in training.

I also have to say that for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time there was a character which inspired so many dead or befuddled stares from other people. It’s like every single character he comes into contact with has at least two or three moments where they look at Whitacre with their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. Have you ever seen another movie where so many characters look like they are about to say, “Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? YOU WHAT??!!”

The two actors who end up giving Whitacre the most dubious glares throughout “The Informant!” are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. Both play off of Damon perfectly, and their expressions mirror our own as we come to discover the secrets of Whitacre’s ways at the same time they do. Bakula gives us a coolly collected FBI agent instead of the intense and easily aggravated ones we see in these movies. But not to worry, he does lose his temper eventually. McHale proves to be even drier here than Bakula, and at the movie’s end, he still cannot figure out if Whitacre has been completely on the level with him. Then again, Whitacre probably can’t figure that out either. Someone once said if you believe in a lie so much, it eventually becomes the truth, and this proves to be Whitacre’s biggest affliction.

The seriousness of the story is offset by the wonderfully breezy music score by Marvin Hamlisch which treats the goings on as a bizarre farce that goes further out of the hand than anyone could have imagined…and then it gets even more bizarre from there. Even as the situation becomes increasingly serious with the walls closing in on Whitacre, Hamlisch’s score remains surprisingly upbeat throughout. Along with the retro opening credits, it’s almost like Soderbergh was trying to give the film a 1970’s look even though it takes place in the 1990’s.

So, while it’s not quite a great movie, “The Informant!” does have a lot going for it, and it is very inventive in how it presents this morally corrupted yet well-meaning character. While Whitacre may think he’s like Tom Cruise’s character in “The Firm,” he is nowhere as lucky as him. Perhaps a more dramatic motion picture could have been made about this man’s life, but none would be anywhere as entertaining as Soderbergh’s.

SO THERE!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne poster

In a summer filled with superhero movies and blockbusters filled with aliens looking to decimate planet Earth, it’s nice to see one with an earthbound action hero who hurts and bleeds like the rest of us. That’s the great thing about watching Matt Damon as Jason Bourne; he makes this formerly amnesiac soldier completely human even as he performs superhuman feats. And now the latest Bourne adventure, simply titled “Jason Bourne,” has Damon reuniting with director Paul Greengrass in another globe-trotting adventure that has Bourne, or David Webb if you want to call him by his real name, once again risking his life more often than not. What results is one of the most solidly entertaining movies to come out in a rather blah summer movie season.

We catch up with Bourne several years after the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” as he makes a living participating in illegal fighting rings. Bourne has since recovered from his amnesia to where he remembers everything, but he still finds himself haunted by what he has done and plagued by demons he can only expunge by beating up opponents, sometimes with a single punch. But then Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) turns up out of the blue to give Bourne some important information regarding Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Just when you thought Bourne was done with the past, it turns out he doesn’t actually remember everything, or at least not yet.

I still vividly remember watching “The Bourne Ultimatum” at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles when it came out in 2007. Few action movies thrilled me the way “Ultimatum” did as Greengrass grounded it in a reality not all that different from our own. Both he and Damon know what makes these movies ticks, and this proves to be “Jason Bourne’s” greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Some have called this entry in the franchise “The Bourne Familiarity,” and it’s not hard to understand why. It follows many of the same beats of its predecessors to where the freshness we discovered in “The Bourne Identity” is largely lost here. Still, “Jason Bourne” is still a pulse-pounding thrill ride as we are led from one insane action set piece to another to where we can’t catch our breath.

Aside from Damon, Stiles is the only actor from previous installments to appear in “Jason Bourne.” This time around we are introduced to a new set of CIA employees that are either out to terminate Bourne or eager to learn more about him. Among them is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) who is eager to punish Bourne for his exposure of the Blackbriar program. Dewey is also heading the Iron Hand program, a Treadstone for the new millennium, and it’s no surprise that while he doesn’t intend to make the same mistakes, it’s highly likely he will make a bunch of new ones.

Jones is great fun to watch here as he is so devilish in his portrayal of a man eager to bury the past in order to ensure the security of America’s future. You never catch “The Fugitive” actor playing Dewey as a one-dimensional bad guy, but instead as a man eager to control the uncontrollable. Not once does Jones overact here as he warns others not to tell Bourne all they know, and he is an actor who doesn’t need to speak up much to show just how threatening he can be. It’s great to see him react to the havoc Bourne brings to his carefully laid plans as he does his best to remain cool under pressure.

But I have to tell you, the person almost steals “Jason Bourne” from Damon and Jones is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander who portrays the head of the CIA Cyber Ops Division, Heather Lee. Vikander is to “Jason Bourne” as Rebecca Ferguson was to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation;” a wonderfully enigmatic character whose motives are never entirely clear until the very end. Some will complain that Vikander gives an emotionless performance here, but that’s missing the point. Her character is one who has to hold her cards close to her chest as any reveal could compromise not just her, but the movie as a whole. You can’t take your eyes off of Vikander as she grabs your attention from start to finish.

Greengrass still knows how to direct an action movie to maximum impact. As with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Ultimatum,” he succeeds in putting you into the action as opposed to making you sit comfortably in your seat. The shaky cam remains a favorite of his which will drive some audience members nuts, but it serves to make all those bullets, car chases and punches feel all the more visceral. As “Jason Bourne” reaches its furious climax, Greengrass keeps our pulses pounding as we wonder how much more damage its hero can take.

Speaking of car chases, Greengrass still comes up with the craziest ones ever. This movie has Bourne chasing down a nameless “Asset” (played by Vincent Cassel) up and down the Las Vegas strip. It’s hard to remember the last time so many parked cars were destroyed in a movie, but “Jason Bourne” may very well have set a new record. While we watch this chase confident Bourne will survive, you still wonder how he will survive when he’s racing at speeds even Sammy Hagar wouldn’t approve of.

“Jason Bourne” doesn’t feel quite as thrilling as “The Bourne Ultimatum” did, and the familiarity it shares with its predecessors does take away from the excitement a bit. But after a seven-year break, Damon and Greengrass still know how to get our adrenaline pumping to where we come out of the theatre thoroughly exhausted. In a summer that feels surprisingly low on thrill rides, we finally have one which delivers.

There’s certainly room for another Bourne adventure in the future, but here’s hoping our hero looks forward instead of back. That should make a future installment stand on its own a bit more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Green Zone

Green Zone poster

It was the teaming of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass which made me almost completely forget that “Green Zone” was yet another movie about our war in Iraq. I find myself, as well as many, avoiding this subject at the movies because we spend our days thinking about what goes on over there and of how we want this war to be over with already. But this director and actor were major forces behind some of the most exciting action movies of the past decade with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Furthermore, the composer of the Bourne trilogy, John Powell, is on board as well to give “Green Zone” an even bigger kinetic kick.

“Green Zone” was apparently inspired by the 2006 non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but the end credits state the movie is actually a work of fiction. Still, while it is not exactly “based on a true story,” “Green Zone” still feels like one of the more logical and honest commentaries about our mess of a war in the Middle East.

Matt Damon stars as Army Chief warrant officer Roy Miller, and we see him with his unit as they investigate a warehouse believed to contain WMD’s. Turns out it doesn’t, and we quickly find this is not the first time Miller and his men have come up empty. As a result, Miller begins to doubt the intelligence reports provided to the troops from a “reliable” but anonymous source. Endlessly curious about why he and every other military officer are not finding any weapons, Miller starts his own investigation into the matter. At the same time, forces around him continue to try and contain a potentially combustible situation that may soon become impossible to control.

It’s no wonder Greengrass chose to work again with Damon on this film. Ever since “The Bourne Identity,” we have had problem accepting Damon as an action hero. What makes Damon perfect for this role is that he never descends into some clichéd portrayal of a soldier who thinks he’s all badass. Roy Miller is a down to earth kind of guy who is sincere in his quest to keep America safe from enemies foreign and domestic. Never does he try to be a hero or show off how macho he is.

You have the soldiers coming up empty, you have the CIA knowing they will come up empty, and you have special intelligence officers who know far more than they are willing to let their own military know about. Also, you have investigative reporters writing articles on Saddam having started up weapons programs again even though they have never been told who their source is. They have to take the word of an official who ends up leading them around in circles.

Now there are a lot of people calling this movie “anti-American” and “anti-war,” but I couldn’t disagree more strongly with that assessment. Many recent war movies are more respectful to the troops than some bother to realize. As for those who assume that it is appallingly “anti-American” as it shows Roy Miller going rogue, I wonder if they had that problem when Jack Bauer does the same thing on “24.”

If anything, the recent war movies have been more anti-mercenary than anything else. Be it “Green Zone,” “The Hurt Locker” or even “Rambo,” mercenaries are shown stepping all over the soldiers if they have to, and we know they get paid twice of what the average soldier makes each year. The soldiers in these films have been presented as far more prepared and patriotic in their commitment to protecting our country. If that isn’t pro-troop, I don’t know what is.

There is also a complexity to both the American and Iraqi characters throughout the film. You figure everyone would be on the same team regardless of what side they are on, but you see all the infighting tearing each side apart as they delude themselves into believing they are winning. One pivotal character in “Green Zone” is Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), an Iraqi who Miller befriends and later becomes his translator. Hollywood has often been accused of presenting Middle Eastern characters as nothing more than terrorists, but Freddy is not like that. Freddy wants to help his country and risks his own life to try to help the Americans while not necessarily welcoming them. He becomes the symbol of those Iraqis that feel wronged by their leaders and of how infuriated they are about the endless damage left in their wake. From a distance, it becomes clear both sides are confused and completely unsure of what to believe.

In some ways “Green Zone” is a criticism of American military involvement in other countries, but director Greengrass doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with that. Still, during the scene where Miller comes face to face with General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor, who gives the role a strong menacing quality), he learns the truth of why American military forces are really in Iraq. Al-Rawi is one of the bad guys, but he is also a victim of being in the position he is in. In other words, Al-Rawi is going to take a fall because the United States government wants Saddam.

When Al-Rawi asks Roy Miller if he thinks American forces can seriously change anything in Iraq, I was reminded of a scene in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” where a helicopter pilot is being held by Somalia warlords who question the military’s involvement in their country:

“Do you think if you get General Aidid, we will simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy? That the killing will stop? We know this. Without victory, there will be no peace. There will always be killing, see? This is how things are in our world.”

Throughout his career, Greengrass has never been afraid of dealing with topics which are very touchy. With “Bloody Sunday,” he captured the horrible events of January 20, 1972 when British soldiers clashed with Northern Ireland protestors fighting for their freedom. Then there was “United 93” which dealt with the events of September 11th and of how the passengers on that fateful flight were the first to deal with a post-9/11 world. With “Green Zone,” he defies those who think movies should just be an escape and not a forum for national conversation. It’s an action movie designed to be as thrilling as it is enlightening. His aim is not to show how America divided itself from the rest of the world with this invasion, but of how it created sharp and highly sensitive divisions in America itself.

In addition to Damon, there are other actors who bring their considerable acting talents to “Green Zone.” Brendan Gleeson is perfectly cast as Martin Brown, the CIA Baghdad bureau chief who has seen it all. Still, he is trying to cut through the BS hindering his efforts to control the situation in Iraq. Amy Ryan is excellent as Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Lawrie Dayne. Her character has written many articles regarding weapons programs being continued in Saddam’s regime, but we see her doubt the source given to her. Most reporters in movies these days are despicable, but Ryan makes this one empathetic as she comes to discover the truth which contradicts all she has reported. The always reliable Greg Kinnear is also well cast as Clark Poundstone, a member of Pentagon Special Intelligence who knows far more than he lets on. It’s no secret these characters are based on real people, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

“Green Zone” isn’t as viscerally exciting as the Jason Bourne movies, and it won’t go down as the definitive Iraq war movie (“The Hurt Locker” holds that distinctive honor), but it is still edge of your seat entertainment. But not to worry, Greengrass films the action in a way that doesn’t make it all that hard to tell what’s going on.

Another key scene that comes to mind is when Roy Miller goes out to investigate a lead, and Kinnear’s character ends up cutting him off. As he walks inside the CIA headquarters in Baghdad he tells Miller, “You shouldn’t have been playing on the wrong team.”

It makes me wonder, when was the last time all of us Americans were on the same team?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2010.

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy poster

Some consider “The Bourne Legacy” to be a cinematic cheat, nothing more than a greedy attempt by Universal Pictures to continue a hugely successful franchise without its main stars (Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass). Truth be told however, Universal has done a good job making it clear to audiences that this movie is not out to replace the character of Jason Bourne or have an actor other than Damon playing him. Even though it doesn’t break any new ground in the franchise and threatens to pale in comparison to the trilogy of films which preceded it, “The Bourne Legacy” proves to be an exciting action flick that finds its own rhythm and goes with it.

Describing this movie is a little complicated as it cannot easily be called a sequel or a prequel. This one is really more of a parallel story or a “parallel-quel” if you will. Like “Paranormal Activity 2,” it surrounds the events of the movie which came before it, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” With Jason Bourne systematically taking apart Operation Blackbriar, “Legacy” looks to pull back the curtain to reveal there were several other secret government programs which trained American soldiers to do their dirty work. The program focused on here is Operation Outcome which has employed Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent who’s not suffering from amnesia but one who knows he is as easily expendable as Bourne.

In differentiating Aaron Cross as a character, Outcome agents are shown to be more like mice in a science lab as they are given certain kinds of medication which give them increased mental and physical abilities. There are no red or blue pills like in “The Matrix,” but instead green and blue ones which Aaron needs to function. If he misses a dose or doesn’t have access to a refill, he will go into serious withdrawal and could die. Anyone who has had experience with certain medications can certainly understand how bad the withdrawal part can get.

When the situation with Bourne gets as explosive as it did in the last film, retired Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is brought in to contain the situation and decides the Outcome agents need to be eliminated for the government’s own protection. So despite the agents’ allegiance to their countries, they are stabbed in the back and assassinated in the coldest way possible.

Aaron narrowly escapes an assassination attempt and ends up going on the run to escape detection and to find some more of those pills. This has him traversing through the Alaskan wilderness while being chased by wolves and going all the way to the Philippines. Joining him in his exploits is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of the doctors who helped Aaron achieve such amazing abilities. The setup does have a ring familiarity about it as Marta, like Marie in “The Bourne Identity,” sees her life get turned upside down and is forced to go on the run with Cross. But whereas Marie was an individual who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marta does have a stronger purpose as Aaron needs her to stay alive.

 

I could spend a lot of time comparing “The Bourne Legacy” with the three previous films, but I would rather not. Those three movies set a new standard for action movies which is extremely hard to top, and that makes certain comparisons somewhat unfair. Greengrass at one time joked that doing another Jason Bourne movie might as well have him calling it “The Bourne Redundancy,” and that could have been the case here. Indeed, the setup is the same with two characters on the run from a government that has betrayed them, but Tony Gilroy does ground this story in a reality that wasn’t as present in the previous movies.

Gilroy has already made himself well known as one of the main architects of the Jason Bourne movies with his involvement in writing the screenplays for them, but his talents as a director were established before “The Bourne Legacy” with “Michael Clayton” which was one of 2007’s best movies. He does solid work in making this particular Bourne movie stand out from the others, and he doesn’t have the camera shaking all over the place.

Renner creates an intriguing enough character in Aaron Cross that makes us want to follow him some more in the future. Renner has long since acquitted himself as an actor in movies like “The Hurt Locker,” “The Town” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” and with “The Bourne Legacy” he gets a lead role in a motion picture worthy of his talents.

And while her character yells more than she should, Weisz is Renner’s equal in one scene to the next as she is thrown into a situation which changes her life permanently. Weisz is a powerful actress to say the least, and she keeps us hanging on during the movie’s more intense sequences.

Edward Norton creates a down to earth nemesis with his character of Eric Byer. While Norton is not always known as one of the easiest actors to deal work with, we know he will always give a multi-dimensional portrait of each character he plays. Eric is not a man driven to do evil, but one whose patriotism forces him to do extreme things in order to protect his country.

You also have to acknowledge actors like Oscar Isaac, Donna Murphy, Zeljko Ivanek and Stacy Keach who take their small roles and made them into compelling characters. Other actors who show to reprise their roles, however briefly are David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and Joan Allen who once again proves with a single line that Deputy Director Pamela Landy is not a person to be messed with.

I missed John Powell’s brilliant music from the past three movies, and the scoring duties this time are left to Gilroy’s frequent composer James Newton Howard. Powell created adrenaline pumping music for the previous three movies that fused orchestral and electronic elements together to thrilling effect. Having said that, Howard is an excellent composer in his own right, and he does give the movie the kinetic score it deserves.

With “The Bourne Legacy,” Tony Gilroy gives us a new chapter in this franchise which in some ways is more realistic than the ones which came before. This may take fans for a bit of a loop depending on what they expect, but it still manages to deliver the goods all the same. Still, it would have been nice for Aaron Cross to have his own theme song instead of Jason Bourne’s (“Extreme Ways” by Moby). How about “Renegade” by Styx? That would work.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2012.