News of the World is an old-fashioned story, a Western and road movie, a grieving father taking a young girl under his wing, but with a slight modern polish thanks to the cinema verite style of director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips). The handheld camerawork and close-ups create a different kind of mood for a genre defined by long takes of sterling vistas. Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a traveling performer in 1870 who would literally collect newspapers and read the news to the locals, providing a wider understanding of the wider world. Along the way he comes across a young German girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised by a Native American tribe (the same tribe killed her German family and adopted her). He is determined to take her to the last of her family 400 miles away and from there they encounter many dangers and detours. I feel like every big filmmaker at some point feels the need to make a Western, and now Greengrass has scratched that itch. The older genre is so mythic and filled with grandly romantic notions of the frontier. News of the World is more an old-fashioned Western, without much in the way of critique, and fairly episodic in plot, and Kidd and the kid travel from miniature set piece to set piece like little narrative cul-de-sacs rarely producing additional connections from their adventures. I hoped Greengrass would bring his docu-drama realism to deconstruct the American romanticism of the Wild West, pick apart at that myth-making and whitewashing, but the movie is more committed to being a safe, square, and traditional old movie. The little girl is less a character and more of a necessary plot device, something to drive this man to confront his grief and provide a purpose for him. I wish there was more to their dynamic but she could have just as easily been replaced with a dog. There is one shootout that serves as the highlight of the film and where Greengrass comes most alive with his sense of tension. I was expecting a bit more conflict or commentary given that Kidd is traveling post-Civil War Southwest and selecting what news each community wants to hear, tailoring to his audience and knowing everyone likes a good story during “these troubled times.” There’s one section where a local boss looks to take advantage of Kidd’s services by forcing him to read from the boss’ propaganda publication and Kidd turns the tables on him. It feels like an anecdote rather than a thesis statement. I kept waiting for more to arise with the characterization but was left disappointed, as much of the movie is kept at a surface-level of who these people are. Whether it’s victim, saint, marauder, or newsman, everyone is pretty much whom you assume on first impression. The movie’s staid pacing lingers. It’s two hours but it’s not in any sense of hurry. Part of this is because the screenplay, based upon a 2016 book by the same name, is entirely predictable. Even the revelations held until the very end for fitting tragic character back-stories can be sussed out. I watched News of the World and kept thinking, “What about this story got these people so excited?” I think it was Greengrass feeling that artistic itch to lend his stamp on the American Western (I was reminded of Ron Howard’s own itch, 2003’s The Missing) and yet it feels like Greengrass was holding back and just sublimated his style to the settled genre expectations. It’s not a bad movie by any means but it lacks anything exceptional to demand a viewing. It’s a perfectly fine movie with a handsome production, gorgeous setting, effective score, and sturdy acting, and when it’s over you’ll say, “Well, that was fine,” and then you’ll go on with your life.
Nate’s Grade: B-
After the indifferent reception of its 2012 spin-off, original super spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) are back and it feels like everyone is falling into familiar paces. The titular fourth film in the franchise (excluding Bourne Legacy) is easily the weakest (excluding Bourne Legacy) and the seams of the formula are starting to show. Once again an ally has intel to expose some sort of secret and illegal government conspiracy that ties into a revelation about Bourne’s past, and once again this ally is killed as the Act One break to spurn Bourne onward, and once again there’s a secondary assassin working for the morally murky government agency head, and once again there’s a signature car chase sequence, and once again there’s a final choice Bourne needs to make about what kind of person he wants to be given his new perspective on his old killin’ ways. The frantic Greengrass staple camerawork and editing can make just about anything bristle with some energy and suspense, but rarely was I fully feeling what was happening onscreen (except for the caveat of admiring how attractive Alicia Vikander’s face looks on the big screen). Short of the final car chase through Vegas with a SWAT truck barreling through traffic, the action sequences are pretty routine and unmemorable. The foot chases and fisticuffs, a hallmark of the franchise, feel slightly blasé in their development. The action isn’t bad but it feels more than a bit staid. The stakes aren’t as high and maybe that’s because it feels like there is little more to reveal about our hero’s hidden past. Is the next movie going to divulge the long lost secret that he never paid a parking ticket? Tommy Lee Jones makes an enjoyably crusty adversary. Vikander has just enough of an angle to provide more substance as a character than the typical agency analyst reciting exposition. The film ends with some promise of looking forward rather than back, and I hope that further adventures with Jason Bourne (excluding Bourne Legacy) stray a little more from the well-worn formula and provide better reasons for this spy to come out of his hiding.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.
Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.
Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.
Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.
Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.
Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I think the best aspect of the The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the memory-troubled spy series, is how kinetically improvised it feels. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a human weapon and he thinks constantly with his body, feeling the situation and his environment, and he comes up with improbable weapons, be them pens, magazines, or kicking ass with just a book (knowledge is power). Bourne doesn’t rely on fancy gadgets or a caustic wit; he just outsmarts the competition by reading his world and reacting instinctively, and that is thrilling to watch. The Bourne films have separated themselves from other spy series like James Bond and standout because of how viscerally realistic they play out. That said, Bourne still survives scrapes that would kill any mortal. At this point, we know just about all we need to know with most of the characters, so Ultimatum is one long, fantastic, and gripping series of chases between Bourne and the CIA operatives that want to rub him out. Ultimatum is Paul Greengrass’ (United 93) second film in the series and he enhances the excitement through his docu-drama style of shooting. The editing is constantly roving and perfectly channels the nervous wariness of a spy that is constantly looking over his shoulder. The action sequences are stellar and raft with suspense and top notch stunt work amongst exotic locales. Ultimatum tacks on some awkward political commentary (black hoods, secret CIA torture, breaking the law to “win” the battle against terror) and tries squeezing its story into a fight between Bourne and the dangerous and lawless elements of the American government that have flourished under President Bush’s watch. It doesn’t quite work in the context of a summer action movie, but thanks for trying. The Bourne Ultimatum is a spry and refreshing action movie that serves to cleanse the summer palate of huge special effects blockbusters.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether America was ready for United 93. Almost every magazine or newspaper article you’d read about director Paul Greengrass’ real time account of 9/11 began with the question, “Is it too soon?” That’s mostly a personal decision. My response: of course not. They were making World War II movies while Europe was still burning and while Pearl Harbor was still recovering. Speaking of which, doesn’t anyone feel that a 9/11 movie would be much more powerful and respectful now, five years removed from one of the worst days in American history? We can still remember that awful day, and most importantly, we can use art as a means of catharsis when the subject remains relevant. Does anyone seriously want to wait 20 years down the pipe for a 9/11 movie to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer? Was 2001’s Pearl Harbor the kind of movie we’ll get when it’s “not too soon?” While I’d never insist people see United 93 if they weren’t ready, I will say it’s definitely a movie that demands to be seen sooner rather than later.
On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked in the sky by members of the terrorist group Al-Quaeda. Two crashed into New York’s World Trade Center building. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United 93, was delayed on its initial takeoff, meaning the four hijackers on board were already behind schedule. After the hijackers had taken control of the plane and turned it back around, presumably headed toward the White House, the passengers started making phone calls from the flight and piecing together the scenario. They weren’t going to land at any airport; they were a bomb on wings. The passengers came together with a heroic plan to take back the plane and use a fellow passenger, with flying experience, to help them land. Their valiant effort ended in United 93 crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
United 93 is one of the most nerve-racking movie going experiences I have ever seen. Because of our prior knowledge of the events, every little thing carries so much dread, from a man who just makes the plane to simple phone calls, unknowingly their last, that end so regularly in “I love you.” Hitchcock said tension was watching a happy couple unaware of a ticking bomb below their picnic table, and he was right. United 93 is grueling to sit through, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t rewarding. We’re going through the same situation and harrowing steps of realization as the passengers. The final phone calls on board may be the most emotionally wrenching thing I’ve seen in a movie since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. The final 30-minutes of the film, concentrating on the passengers retaking the plane, is some of the most intense cinema I’ve seen in years. My heart was beating outside of my chest and I was shaking, even after I got out of the theater. I spent the next hour at my house walking around trying to shake it off but I couldn’t. This is an incredibly powerful and sobering film that will stay with you like a bad dream.
Witnessing the unfolding events of United 93, a spellbinding example of you-are-there cinema verite, you really feel like you’re watching a living documentary. There’s nothing sensational or overly political that happens within United 93. Greengrass even has the temerity to present the hijackers as human beings, granted human beings capable of ferocious acts of horror. The first moments of the movie are the hijackers preparing, praying, reciting the Koran, and going about their plot. You see them sweat, get antsy, and the lead hijacker evens seems a bit hesitant about following through, especially since this coordinated attack was botched by United 93’s delay on the tarmac. Some would call such a portrayal ludicrous, citing a scene where a hijacker calls his girlfriend to say his last “I love you” as apologetic claptrap. Some would take offense that the hijackers are not demonized, have horns sprouting from their heads, or laugh maniacally at spilled blood. But just like Spielberg’s portrayal of Palestinians in Munich, human evil is much more nuanced than simply painting a mustache on. United 93 shows every side to 9/11 like what a good documentary should do. This isn’t propaganda, this isn’t exploitation, this is respectful filmmaking. Yes, we?ll never know what happened on flight 93, and much of the film is speculation, but it’s speculation built around research and reverence.
Greengrass is in fine form, recreating the same sense of building desperation and terror that he so elegantly assembled in 2002’s Bloody Sunday. The antic handheld camerawork may give people some headaches, but no filmmaker does a better job of putting you in the moment than Greengrass. His decision to use real people portraying themselves, like FAA head Ben Sliney, creates a greater feel for authenticity, even having the film’s stewardesses played by real United stewardesses. None of it feels gimmicky, nor is Greengrass interested in telling a jingoistic, hyperbolic action adventure. The famous “Let’s roll” line is just another line said amongst many in the planning process for taking back the flight. The violence is sudden and shocking but never sensationalized. United 93 ends exactly as it should too. You?ll probably hear sobbing in your theater at that point; I did.
There have been complaints that the character development in United 93 is lacking. But really this is a story about 2 hours on one morning, told in real time, and how much talking do strangers do on a flight? Some, sure, but not a lot. To answer critics, if we’d gotten to know these characters extensively it would either break the fabric of reality and turn these people into eagerly sharing, easily emotive figures, not people, or would require extensive flashbacks which would remove us from the visceral feeling of the story. That’s why Greengrass cuts back to NORAD and the FAA, because there’s stuff happening there; the slow realization of fright, the disbelief, the staggering amount of confusion and miscommunication. They can’t even get anyone from the White House on the phone to even establish a chain of command. If we had staid onboard we would be watching people read magazines or eat peanuts for 30 minutes. I never once felt less for these people because of the characterization concerns.
The “ordinariness” of the passengers is what works best, because it just as easily could have been you or me, but would we have reacted the same? Had it been “Tom Cruise starring in United 93″ then it never would have worked. This excels on how realistic everything comes across, and any Hollywood moment that would shatter that realism is absent (thank God there’s no product placement). One of the more amazing aspects of United 93‘s conclusion is just how fast everything came about. These people had little time to act, much less take stock of the waking nightmare the day was turning into and formulate a plan. The movie is a touching tribute to a group of ordinary people that became something more on one of our darkest days.
Naturally, United 93 is not going to be a film for everyone. It’s unflinching, grueling, and altogether hard to sit through. It does a stupendous job of recreating that tragic day and allowing our own knowledge of the events to build an overwhelming sense of dread. Greengrass excels in this arena of storytelling and he’s worked his docu-drama magic once more, painstakingly allowing the viewer feel like they are a participant, to the point where we even get a rush of hope that maybe the passengers could take back their plane and save themselves. The question of whether it’s too soon for a major 9/11 movie has to be decided on an individual level. I don’t recall anyone griping about the thousands of documentaries and the A&E Flight 93 TV movie, all of which, yes, made money off 9/11 too. I think for us as a society, we need this movie to remind ourselves of the heroism and sacrifice of a few. It’s very easy to get lulled back to complacency, but the masterful United 93 will not allow that. This is a powerful story told without a hint of melodrama and it will be guaranteed to be near my Best of the Year list when 2006 rolls to a close.
Nate’s Grade: A