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A soldier strategizes in the battlefield

It’s a film genre about as healthy as American auto-making -- the Middle East war movie. But if any director-actor pairing might be able to make an Iraq film a commercial film, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon may be it.

Loosely adapted by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) from the nonfiction bestseller “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” Greengrass’ “Green Zone” aspires to be less didactic discourse than duck-and-cover adventure. Given Damon’s collaborations with Greengrass, imagine “Green Zone” as Jason Bourne in Baghdad.

“It is not a movie about Iraq,” Greengrass said on the London set of his film last spring. “The hope is to make a strong, contemporary thriller that is set in Iraq. Thrillers thrive on extremity, and there is no more extreme environment than immediate post-invasion Baghdad,” he said. (Indeed, the cinematographer’s slate used during production titled the film not “Green Zone” but “Green Zone Thriller.”)

The film follows Roy Miller (Damon), a warrant officer leading a team of 18 Army soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in late 2003, just after the American-led invasion.

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Instead of a cache of deadly chemicals, though, Miller’s team finds disorganization and ineptitude, and Miller soon grows desperate.

“It’s a race against time to find those weapons,” the 53-year-old British filmmaker says. “It’s a race against time to catch Saddam Hussein. It’s a race against time to establish essential services. And it’s a race against time to win the confidence of the Iraqi people.”

Greengrass shot so much film that he has been editing footage for nearly a year, and Universal has yet to schedule “Green Zone’s” release, although it is penciled in for late in the year. The film’s cast includes Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs.

Greengrass knows audiences have steered clear of nearly every recent movie about Middle East conflict (the scrap heap includes “Stop-Loss,” “Body of Lies” and “Lions for Lambs”). But as he proved with 2006’s “United 93,” Greengrass can take the thorniest of subjects and turn it into a minor hit with critics and moviegoers.

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“I don’t accept the proposition that cinema can’t look to Iraq and bring people to it,” he said. “I am a born optimist. I know from experience how hard it is to make any film -- it’s hard to do, let alone succeed. The pressure is on, and nobody is insulated from the pressure. The studio bosses are no more insulated than I am.”

-- John Horn


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