DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
British director Paul Greengrass has filmed two of Matt Damon's "Bourne Identity" movie thrillers, but he's also worked with more fact-based material. He directed the 2002 film "Bloody Sunday," which used documentary techniques to re-create an infamous Irish civil rights protest; and in 2006, he dramatized another real-life incident in "United 93." Now, he and "Bourne" star Matt Damon have collaborated again, this time on "The Green Zone," a fictionalized story inspired by accounts of the early occupation in Iraq.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: War films don't come much more political than "The 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 former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."
That book chronicled what he 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. "The 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 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. And meanwhile, they're under fire from Iraqi snipers. As in Greengrass's 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 to 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.
At a big meeting, Damon's Miller distinguishes himself from the other officers by calling the bad intel question.
(Soundbite of movie, "Green Zone")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Yeah?
Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as Roy Miller) I had a couple questions about the intel for tomorrow. Are we sure this is accurate?
Unidentified Man #1: (as character) It's solid. It's good to go.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) What's the source?
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Well, it's a human source intel. But it's solid. It's current as of zero-four-hundred.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) Was it the same - same source we've been using on - every site weve hit on the way up here, weve rolled a doughnut.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Chief, how about we do this: Let's talk off line. Give me a list of the places where you went and the grids, and we'll make sure that you had the right information written down, and that you went to the right places, OK?
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) Captain, the issue isn't the grid, sir. The issue is that there's nothing there.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Stand down, Chief. We need to move on here.
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Hold on, hold it a second. Let's hear what the Chief has to say.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) OK, sir, I'll give you an example. We rolled into a site - Diwaniyah - last week, OK; 101st took casualties securing it for us. We got in there and found it was a toilet factory. I'm saying there's a disconnect between what's in these packets, and what we're seeing on the ground. There's a problem with the intelligence, sir.
EDELSTEIN: "The 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'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 presented in a high-pressure vacuum. A bespectacled Greg Kinnear plays a figure meant to be Paul Bremer, 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. And 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'd 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.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.