Despite its recent Oscar bonanza, “The Hurt Locker” is in line with other Iraq-themed movies that have tanked at the box office, including “Stop-Loss,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Body of Lies,” and “Rendition.” Now along comes “Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass, who also made the last two “Bourne” movies. Action-packed to a fault, it’s clearly intended to break the genre’s cycle of uncommerciality.
Damon plays Army Chief Officer Roy Miller, whose job it is to hunt down WMDs in the initial shock-and-awe stages of the Iraq invasion. Every location searched by his team draws a blank. When he confronts newly arrived Bush administration honcho Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) with his suspicions about faulty intelligence, his concerns are pooh-poohed.
Miller tracks the bad intel to Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), whose reports, drawing exclusively on a confidential source named “Magellan,” back the administrations convictions about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Stonewalled on all sides, refusing to be co-opted by Poundstone, Miller improbably finds his only ally in Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a burly veteran CIA operative at odds with Poundstone. Acting essentially as his own operative, Miller tracks down the truth, employing a small cadre of allies including a Saddam-loathing local, Freddy (Khalid Abdalla).
Greengrass has made at least two politically themed movies in the past that transcended simple thrills: “United 93,” which dealt with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the Northern Ireland civil rights drama “Bloody Sunday.” Both had a documentary-style immediacy that did not preclude political complexity.
But when Greengrass brought his edgy, hand-held stylistics to the “Bourne” franchise, I began to long for a stationary camera. When I go to the movies, I’m not paying to get seasick. In “Green Zone,” the camera doesn’t hold still even when the characters are rooted in place. I’ve never understood why directors think all this hoo-ha is indicative of high realism. On the contrary, it’s showoffy.
“Green Zone” offers itself up as more realistic, more hard-hitting, than the typical war movie. But Greengrass and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland, attempting to provide bigger action and louder ka-booms, engineer a series of increasingly improbable plot devices. Supposedly “inspired by” Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s scathing nonfiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” the film plays instead like a not terribly terrific “Bourne” movie that got sidetracked to Baghdad.
While it’s bracing to have a big Hollywood movie confront the WMD fiasco, “Green Zone” goes further than this in the end by, in effect, rewriting history. It’s one thing for the filmmakers to (sort of) fictionalize real people – Poundstone is obviously based on Paul Bremer and Dayne on The New York Times’s Judith Miller – but “Green Zone” wraps up with a wish-fulfillment fantasy that is about as believable as watching reinforcements riding in to save Custer. Ironically, the film becomes an unintended and tragic reminder of what didn’t ensue. Grade: C+ (Rated R for violence and language.)
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