Matt Damon plays a hero who’s one part 24‘s Jack Bauer and two parts good soldier in Green Zone. Wearing standard combat gear accessorized with an Arab kaffiyeh knotted around his neck, Damon is U.S. Army chief warrant officer Roy Miller, who’s stationed in Baghdad at the start of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in 2003. Miller’s squadron is on a mission to find weapons of mass destruction, since the highly reliable intelligence confirming Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s deadly stash of WMD is what persuaded Congress to authorize George W. Bush to invade the country in the first place. But there are no WMD to be found. And Miller, a serious man, has begun to wonder: Why is the intel so bad?
Not that he gets much time to sit around thinking. Green Zone is a strangely dated, foolishly grandiose, simplistically angry fictional war-zone thriller about how one patriot blows the lid off America’s missteps in Iraq. It’s the work of Paul Greengrass, the same adrenaline-generating filmmaker who put Damon through his action-hero paces in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). In his Bourne projects, as well as in his more documentary-style re-creations such as Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), Greengrass specializes in a high-wire visual vocabulary that not only enhances action sequences but turns even sit-down meetings into nerve-racking affairs. From the moment we meet Miller and his men as they secure a reputed WMD storage facility (”Clear!”) and risk their lives for zilch, the movie never walks when it can run, never runs when it can race with bullets flying overhead, and never leaves room for a sentient audience to draw its own conclusions when the filmmakers can poke a finger in our collective chest and growl, ”Look how Bush and company screwed up here and here and HERE.” Green Zone‘s didactic script, by Mystic River screenwriter Brian Helgeland, is based on Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but it converts that indispensable nonfiction book into a wild, whistle-blowing fable.
The more sober 2007 documentary No End in Sight produced powerful evidence of fatally poor decision-making in Iraq. But in Green Zone‘s 2003 Baghdad alleys, Miller operates like a one-man truth squad, piecing together all the ways that his men — and, by extension, the American public — were duped into invasion. A disillusioned CIA operative (Brendan Gleeson, with an American accent subject to power failures) steers Miller in one direction; a dangerous, gung ho doofus of a State Department operative (Greg Kinnear) spins him in another. A credulous Wall Street Journal journalist (Amy Ryan), unsubtly modeled on New York Times journalist Judith Miller, buys into the disinformation she’s been fed. There’s also a helpful, patriotic Everyman Iraqi citizen (Khalid Abdalla) who calls himself Freddy. Initially, he’s roughed up by suspicious U.S. soldiers when he volunteers useful information; then he’s hustled into service as Miller’s translator and driver. Eventually, Freddy comes to regret that he thought his new American ”friends” could ever help keep his family safe.
Greengrass has a compulsively watchable style and a sharp understanding of Damon’s unlikely strengths as an action hero; the director plays off the actor’s understated efficiency and physical stolidity in scenes of mad danger. The standoffs, showdowns, and cat-and-mouse chases are bracing, sometimes even Bourne cool. What Green Zone lacks, however, is gravitas, perspective, and (since it was shot two years ago) timeliness: Why wasn’t this out before the 2008 elections? Until now, I’ve been immune to ”Iraq fatigue,” the diagnosis invented for why audiences stay away from good movies about U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. (Even the apolitical Oscar winner The Hurt Locker earned peanuts at the box office.) With Green Zone, though, the malaise has finally hit me. So while Damon’s Miller uncovers the (inconvenient) truth of why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, all I want to know is: How does he suggest we get out? C+