'Green Zone': Bourne In Baghdad, Looking For WMDs

Matt Damon

Fire When Ready: Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a warrant officer who helps a CIA operative search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Paul Greengrass' movie is an action flick with a sharply political bent. Courtesy of Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Green Zone

  • Director: Paul Greengrass
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 115 min
Rated R for violence and language.

With: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla

War films don't come much more political than Green Zone, which given the star, Matt Damon, the director, Paul Greengrass, and the paranoid-conspiracy plot, could easily have been subtitled The Bourne Bushwhacking. The script, by Brian Helgeland, is credited as "inspired by" Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a Baghdad chronicle by former Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. That book recounted what Chandrasekaran saw as a series of disastrous, politically motivated decisions in the occupation's first year by Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer — decisions that helped spark the insurgency. Green Zone turns that thesis into a tumultuous, enraging and occasionally tawdry melodrama. It's a mixed bag, but you can't say Greengrass and Damon don't take a stand.

Damon plays a fictional character, Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, commander of a team of heavily armed weapons inspectors. They move from site to site searching for WMDs that are supposed to be there, guaranteed to be there, but aren't there; meanwhile they're under fire from Iraqi snipers. As in Greengrass' Bourne movies, the hand-held camera shimmies and swerves, using a jittery battlefield-documentary style to drive home the idea that this is real and trigger your fight-or-flight instincts. So after all that sweaty combat maneuvering, when the team comes up empty you're almost as frustrated as they are.

Green Zone is full of scandalous details from Chandrasekaran's book, among them a would-be Iraq ruler clearly based on Ahmed Chalabi and here portrayed as a charlatan and U.S. puppet. As in the book, the key bad decision — the game changer — is the move to disband the Iraqi military and outlaw Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, thereby leaving a lot of enraged men with easy access to weapons. In the film, a seasoned CIA hand played by Brendan Gleeson foresees civil war down the road if that happens, and he and Damon's Miller try to amass their own intelligence to head off their superiors.

Unfortunately, Greengrass and Damon were under pressure to deliver an action movie — and not one like The Hurt Locker, in which the enemy is unseen and the military feats are presented in a high-pressure vacuum. A bespectacled Greg Kinnear plays the Bremer doppelganger, but he's not just a political tool; he's a government-empowered gangster straight out of a Bourne movie. And pretty soon Bourne — I mean, Miller — is racing through the streets of Baghdad to prevent an assassination; then he and an Iraqi guard are duking it out with the camera in tight and the soundtrack reverberating with the crunch of bones.

It's not that it's badly done; it's that it's so much like 24's Jack Bauer heading off yet another evil plot that even the biggest conspiracy buffs will find it tough to swallow. In the Greengrass zone, there's no time or space for the quiet revelation, the offhand but crystalline detail that transcends the melodramatic agenda. There's a lack of imagination in his work.

It's only Damon's good, low-key acting that keeps the final twist involving a Baathist general and a reporter played by Amy Ryan from seeming as preposterous as it is. Ryan's Lawrie Dayne, clearly modeled on The New York Times's Judith Miller, is rattled by the thought that she's been fooled by a Pentagon-staged farce involving a top-secret informant — a marked contrast to the real Miller, who always defended her reporting as being based on credible sources. Even if you believe the movie's interpretation of events, the techniques are bludgeoning.

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