Director Paul Greengrass airlifts Jason Bourne to war-torn Baghdad in this Iraq-occupation thriller that casts Matt Damon as a crusading soldier uncovering evidence of lies and misdirection in the American war on terrorism. It’s a less successful companion piece to his almost unbearably tense United 93. Using the language of action movies to build a much larger-than-life experience, these two films build a post-9/11 cinematic mythology, a snapshot of a long moment in U.S. history that reframes debate in aggressively populist terms. United 93 is some kind of masterpiece, but the grander scope and general lack of nuance in Green Zone fuel some awfully stentorian, ham-handed moments that nearly sink the film.
In Green Zone, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) gets fed up when his latest assignment leads him to a purported biological weapons facility that turns out to be a toilet factory. When he complains about receiving consistently bad intelligence reports, he catches the attention of a CIA official (Brendan Gleeson) who agrees there’s a funny smell coming out of the Pentagon. Twisted this way and that by his prevaricating superior officers, by his skeptical underlings, and by Freddy, the hapless, one-legged Iraqi civilian he enlists as translator and escort, Miller eventually breaks away from his futile assignments and starts hunting down sources that he thinks can tell him where the WMDs really are.
Miller’s efforts initially revolve around a mysteriously coded notebook. That notebook is the film’s obvious MacGuffin — to borrow Hitchcock’s term for an arbitrary object around which a plot revolves — and it sets events in motion. But Green Zone itself draws attention to a real-world MacGuffin: the phantom WMDs that served as the narrative hook for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Brian Helgeland’s script explains in strenuously expository fashion, WMDs were never the real issue. They were just the enabler of a larger strategy to stabilize the Middle East by bringing Democracy to the region, being greeted as liberators, etc.
But Green Zone is at its worst as it spells out its already obvious political agenda. Greengrass and Helgeland are in lecture mode, scolding the Bush Administration for disingenuousness, lamenting the USA’s presumed loss of moral standing internationally, and objecting to a nation-building strategy that fails to account for the needs and strongly held beliefs of a multifaceted citizenry. At least on the left, these are not controversial talking points, which leaves the film largely spinning its wheels.
And the closer the screenplay hews to the facts of the matter, the more distracting its deviations become. For example, one of the film’s characters is a Wall Street Journal reporter named Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a clear surrogate for New York Times writer Judith Miller. But while Miller, now a Fox News commentator and adjunct fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, was widely criticized for her role in bolstering the Bush Administration’s case for war, Dayne is written as a well-meaning dupe who ends up cheering for Miller from the sidelines. For those who are paying attention to the film’s references, that kind of dissonance is puzzling.
Green Zone is bolder, more provocative, and more successful when it’s abandoning the details of recent history and painting in much broader strokes, sending Miller on a Jack Bauer-style mission into the heart of the Baghdad night. Some of the material is harrowing, as when Miller’s quest takes him inside a dark prison-cum-torture-chamber where recently captured prisoners are beaten half to death in order to extract information. (That he’s brought along poor Freddy, who tags behind him silent but wide-eyed, just adds to the surreal misery of the spectacle.) Some of it is funny, as when Miller glimpses one of the U.S.’s 55 most-wanted Iraqis escaping out the back door of a house and barks out, incongruously, “Who’s got that deck of cards?” And some of it is flat-out scary, as in the film’s long final action passage, shot by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, The Hurt Locker) under conditions of such darkness that the filmed image becomes almost hallucinatory in the thickness and intensity of its grain — as if the image itself has become distressed by the violence and duplicity that’s closing in on the film’s protagonist.
Top-drawer visual-effects work, supervised by Peter Chiang, contributes to the general air of unease, whether it’s an image of Baghdad burning underneath the film’s title card or a shot in an action set piece toward the end of the film that has a flaming helicopter plummeting out of the night sky in an out-of-control descent that seems to last a near-eternity. Nearly seamless digital effects render the illusion complete — Green Zone was shot in Spain, Morocco and England, but it has a singular and haunting sense of place.
Because the storyline is ultimately contrived, all the wizardry of Greengrass’s posse can’t infuse Green Zone with the kind of jittery magic of the last two Bourne movies, which redefined the state of the art in Hollywood action thrillers. It was obviously arduous to concoct a thriller plot that gave Damon’s character anything like a credible chance to influence the unfolding of events during the war, and the results are fundamentally unsatisfying. In some patches, it’s kind of a snooze. The expository dialogue, often ostentatiously freighted with meaning, doesn’t help, nor does the half-assed happy ending.
Still, there’s something fascinating and, oddly for such a large-scale effort, personal about it. The film’s protagonist is a surrogate for any frustrated observer of U.S. foreign policy. It would be too much to call Green Zone a kind of essay film. It never goes out on an intellectual limb. But it plays as an attempt to depict the intellectual and emotional journey of anybody who bought into the apparent necessity of an American occupation of Iraq and ended up in a state of disillusionment at the scope of the deception that was eventually revealed. As mainstream narrative moviemaking goes, this is a kind of experiment, and it’s only partly successful. But, set against the most expansive, otherworldly backdrop this side of James Cameron’s Pandora, it’s an appropriately spooky experience.