Green Zone (review)

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Mass Distraction

Spoiler alert! Jason Bourne does not find the WMDs in Iraq. Sorry to ruin Green Zone for you, but surely reality already did that years ago.

Also: There is no Santa Claus. But it would be hilarious to see Jason Bourne invade the North Pole in search of him.

It’s an odd duck, this not-Jason Bourne movie in which star Matt “Jason Bourne” Damon and director Paul “Bourne Ultimatum” Greengrass go to Iraq in order to pursue truth, justice, and the American way that We the Little People are supposed to live up to but from which our leaders are, apparently, exempt. It’s 2003, a month after the U.S. invasion, Baghdad is a looter’s paradise, Saddam is on the run, and Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is getting frustrated. He’s leading up a special army team, see, a band of brothers tasked with swooping into WMD sites — we know they’re WMD sites because Our Secret Iraqi Source told us so — and bringing out the smoking guns so they can be paraded before the world press. Small problem: No WMDs. Not anywhere. Miller smells a rat.
“The intel’s no good,” he bites out angrily to anyone who will listen, which is just about no one at all. “There’s a problem with the intelligence,” he insists. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan: Changeling, Dan in Real Life) is slightly interested… except she’s the one who’s been unquestioningly passing on these reports from Our Secret Iraqi Source, via her Deep Throat in Washington, to the American people. CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson [In Bruges, Beowulf], with an American accent) is slightly more interested, because he’s in the middle of a pissing contest with professional poli-sci major Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear: Flash of Genius, Ghost Town): they differ over whether Iraq can be fixed by sitting traditional mortal ethnic enemies down for a roundtable and manufacturing democracy.

Meanwhile, of course, there is lots of running around Baghdad in the dead of night for crazy-intense foot chases and gunbattles and the like, because there are so many bad guys left in that card deck of Iraqi bad guys to be hunted down, and one of them, General Al Rawi (Igal Naor: Rendition), must know where the WMDs are, and Matt Damon’s gonna get him some answers, dammit!

Paul Greengrass is a master of documentary-style action filmmaking — it’s what made his Bourne movies so deliciously entertaining — but it’s an uncomfortable mix with the genuine criminal political skullduggery sitting next to it in Green Zone. Imagine All the President’s Men with some kickass military action thrown in, but with nary a mention of the names Woodward or Bernstein, never mind Richard Nixon. The invention from whole cloth the notion that Saddam Hussein was sitting on piles of WMD may be a mystery that has yet to be fully unraveled, but it’s a mystery that actually exists, and though Brian Helgeland’s (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, The Taking of Pelham 123) script is based on the nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], the film plays like a wholly fictional thriller, if, perhaps, one set not too far outside reality so as to lend it a gloss of authenticity. It is a fictional thriller, in fact, a Hollywood-washed charade, a tale of real perfidy that refuses to name any of the actual villains. (George W. Bush isn’t name-checked once, though he appears briefly in that “mission accomplished” clip for the inevitable irony it provides. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are nowhere to be found; Paul Bremer is noted only in passing.)

The most intriguing character here is Freddy, an angry, patriotic Iraqi played with aching soul by Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93), who attempts to help Miller and endures way too much shit from the Americans — who are supposed to have invaded to help the likes of Freddy in the first place — along the way. “Whatever you want here, I want more than you want,” he says to Miller at one point. It’s an ironic reminder of the peculiar disconnect Green Zone engages in, the one not between the honest, ordinary Americans on the ground like Miller and the honest, ordinary Iraqis like Freddy, but between the likes of Miller — who just wants to do his job and do it honorably — and the likes of those Americans not mentioned here, who lie to honest, ordinary soldiers (and other honest, ordinary American citizens) in order to gin up support for a war they want very much indeed. No amount of beautifully gritty urban military action excitement can quite overcome the sense that the real story is almost entirely missing here.

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Fri, Mar 12, 2010 1:11am

How does the Greengrass camera work compare to the Bourne movies? About the same? I know some people that said they couldn’t watch those movies because the camera work was so jerky. Never really bothered me though.

Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones
Fri, Mar 12, 2010 7:12am

I was ambivalent about this one as soon as I learned about it. Frankly, for most of the reasons given in your review, I didn’t want to see “Jason Bourne in Iraq”. I didn’t want to see Damon and Greengrass do their thing together again, it felt like a retread, something both of them could do in their sleep. Besides, I think I’ve had all the revisionist fantasy (Inglorious Basterds, which I liked) that I can take for a while.

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 9:35am

How does the Greengrass camera work compare to the Bourne movies? About the same?

About the same, or maybe even used a little more.

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 10:16am

This sure ain’t no “HURT LOCKER” and it definitely will not win any Oscars next year. If anybody other than Matt Damon were involved,I doubt it would ever have been made. Damon,to his credit, makes the film work as a cross between Jason Bourne and Rambo.

Santa Claus
Fri, Mar 12, 2010 10:42am

Santa Claus does, indeed, exist: TheSantaClausFoundation dot org, and could do a better job tracking Bourne than the other way around.

Fri, Mar 12, 2010 1:29pm

Thanks, MaryAnn. My mother was wondering. She said she didn’t mind the camerawork in Ultimatum, but said she found Supremacy almost unwatchable because of it. She said if it’s as bad as Supremacy, she’d rather just pop in one of the Bourne DVDs and rewatch that. When I tell her your reply, I suspect she’ll decide on waiting and streaming it from Netflix down the road.

After all the first person shooters I’ve played over the years, a hand-held camera is no big deal.

Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 7:26pm

Succumbed to a friend’s interest and went to see this movie, despite my ambivalence, to see for myself if my feelings were justified. In short, they were.

I really had no need to see it, especially now, after the more thoughtful Hurt Locker has achieved what it has. Yes, Green Zone had it’s moments, but a few rewarding moments out of a full-length feature do not a good experience make. It will probably look and feel better when it comes out on DVD & Blu-ray, when it settles into the public marketplace of ideas. But right now it’s just superfluous. It preaches to the choir and provides something for those who didn’t think Hurt Locker was exciting and movie-ish enough.