Five years ago with a tighter, more paranoid script and better-drawn hero, Paul Greengrass' Green Zone could've been a contender. With its Bush-war shadiness, convincing on-the-ground Iraq setting, truth-seeking hero and Call of Duty-style pyrotechnics, the movie has good bones. Unfortunately, as delivered, it all adds up to little more than a liberal filmmaker's adrenalized but mediocre answer to the vigilante righteousness of Peter Berg's more conservative-minded The Kingdom. Think of it as popcorn and popgun politics.
Teaming up again with his Bourne series star, Matt Damon, Greengrass tries to graft a '70s-style conspiracy thriller onto a breakneck action flick while critiquing the incompetence and corruption of Bush's policies in Iraq. It doesn't work. Using his urgent, jerk-and-jostle filmmaking style to elevate your heartbeat and frustrate your ability to focus on any image for more than six seconds, the director is working from a script that's too implausibly simplistic and symmetrical. Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Man on Fire) buffs the film's heroes and villains into clichéd nubs, and doesn't know how to rein in his sprawling yet claustrophobic narrative.
Very "loosely" based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran's terrific nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Green Zone takes place early in the Iraq War, as chief warrant officer Roy Miller (Damon) searches for Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. What the patriotic soldier finds instead, however, is a whole lot of false intel. And it makes him mad. So mad he goes off-mission to follow a lead fed to him by an Iraqi informer. Baathist bigwigs are meeting in a nearby house, and he comes close to capturing General Al Rawi, an Iraqi WMD expert (aka the Jack of Clubs). But something's fishy: An ideological bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear channeling Paul Bremer) has Miller roughed up by Special Forces and his sole witness is taken to Abu Ghraib before any useful information can be learned. Soon Miller is working with a CIA maverick (Brendan Gleeson) who questions the administration's tactics, and exchanging info with a hack journalist (Amy Ryan) — who bears more than a passing resemblance to New York Times war cheerleader Judith Miller. Of course, both sides are in a race to snag Al Rawi in order to find and suppress the truth.
Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's hand-held doc approach hustles you through Baghdad's blown-out neighborhoods and dangerous alleyways. The action sequences are vivid, tense and striking, as Greengrass' smash-and-grab technique juices up his harrowing foot chases and ear-splitting gun battles. If it sounds like Syriana: Big, Badder and Louder, you're close.
But only Chandrasekaran's award-winning book had the balls to name names. Green Zone plays coy with its politics, alluding to the con job that was the Iraqi War but never fully committing. Its villains are as one-dimensional as Damon's "If there are no WMD in Iraq, then why are we here" rage. For all Green Zone's authenticity — and it does look and feel real — its fact-based fiction is obviously a fake, filled with paint-by-numbers genre elements, murky motivations, routine implausibilities and Hollywood's need for closure, no matter how unconvincing. Damon's final-reel claim that "the truth always matters" becomes a sad reminder that Greengrass' film is as confused as the reasons we went to war. Where is populist paranoiac Oliver Stone when you need him?
All the elements for a truly paranoid thriller are here, and had Damon been allowed to chase down an insidious mystery that constantly threatened his life and shifted his allegiances, Green Zone could have entertained and educated, convincing the 50 percent of Americans who still believe we found WMD in Iraq that the Bush administration sold them a load of crap. Instead it's Greengrass' poorly scripted ideology that'll take the hit, as the real culprits once again stroll off into the sunset.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.