Movie Review: ‘Green Zone’

Film Critic

You have to hand it to “Green Zone.” Made with daring and passion, it attempts the impossible and comes remarkably close to pulling it off. So close, in fact, that the skill and audacity used, the shock and awe of this highly entertaining attempt, are more significant than the imperfect results.

As created by director Paul Greengrass, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and star Matt Damon, this risk-taking endeavor uses the narrative skills and drive Greengrass honed beautifully on “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy” and marries them to reality-based political concerns. More specifically, this is a red-hot action thriller that deals candidly and unapologetically with the situation in Iraq.

Not today’s Iraq, but the country in early 2003, when the U.S. invaded and the search was on for WMD, Saddam Hussein’s much-discussed weapons of mass destruction that were the key rationale for military action. “It was a pivotal subject,” screenwriter Helgeland ( an Oscar winner for “L.A. Confidential”) has said, “in why we went to war and how the war was sold.”

To tell this story of idealism toyed with and betrayed, of a superb soldier determined to find out the truth about those weapons, Helgeland’s tightly written script has gone down parallel paths while taking great care not to let either story line overwhelm the other.

On the one hand, Helgeland has artfully constructed a roman à clef in which numerous key real-life figures, including New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Iraqi politician Achmed Chalabi, have been given fictional counterparts.

More than that, the specifics of controversial decisions (for example “Deba’athification” and the disbanding of the Iraqi army) taken from such journalistic accounts as Charles Ferguson’s documentary “No End in Sight” and the book credited with being an inspiration for the film, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” have worked their way into the story.

But it would be a mistake to consider “Green Zone” (named after the American enclave in central Baghdad) to be any kind of political tract.

First and foremost it aims, and succeeds, at being the kind of entertainment fans of the “Bourne” films would appreciate. As director Greengrass writes in a foreword to a new “Emerald City” paperback, he wanted to encourage that audience to “consider whether the mistrust and paranoia that characterized Bourne’s world was so far-fetched after all.”

As a filmmaker, Greengrass showed as far back as his superb “Bloody Sunday” that he is one of the world’s best at re-creating reality-based chaos.

Working with his usual team (cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, production designer Dominic Watkins, editor Christopher Rouse and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang), the director conveys a fine sense of the mind-warping turmoil on the ground, as well as the quicksilver landscape of shifting values, alliances and loyalties that characterized the occupation.

In this he is helped enormously by his “Bourne” star, Matt Damon. Almost imperceptibly, Damon is maturing into a formidable leading man, always slightly different, always completely believable, an actor whose quiet strengths have begun to mirror his recent “Invictus” director Clint Eastwood.

Damon plays U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a superbly competent head of a team of soldiers risking their lives to find WMD. But despite raid after raid, the weapons are nowhere to be found, and Miller is good enough at his job to want to find out why his men are being put in harm’s way in the service of what appears to be bogus intelligence.

Persistent despite the run-around he gets from his superiors, Chief Miller comes to the attention of Martin Brown (a just-right Brendan Gleeson), the rumpled old CIA hand who’s been in Baghdad since the Flood.

Brown is the first person to give Miller a sense of the unreal, counterintuitive world of Green Zone power politics, where nothing is as it seems. When Miller tells the CIA man, “I thought we were all on the same side,” Brown caustically answers, “Don’t be naive.”

Among the other people Miller draws into his quest are Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), the compromised Judith Miller knockoff, and Clark Poundstone, a Defense Intelligence agent in sync with Washington’s party line about the good that’s being done in Iraq. He’s played by Greg Kinnear, an actor with something of the affect of the real-life L. Paul Bremer, who was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Helped by the pithy nature of Helgeland’s script and Greengrass’ hard-edged, realistic directing style, these performances are all excellent, as are Khalid Abdalla as an Iraqi patriot, Yigal Naor as an elusive Iraqi general, and Jason Isaacs as a ruthless Special Forces operative.

Even though it comes awfully close, “Green Zone” can’t totally keep its balance right up to the end.

Precisely because so much of this film is so good at verisimilitude, the Hollywood tendencies of its last sections are not as satisfying as what’s come before, the forceful and engaging nature of the action footage notwithstanding.

Yet, though we regret that final wobbliness, “Green Zone” leaves us a great deal to be grateful for. It gives full weight to the moral complexities of the Iraq situation, something that is rare in any film, let alone a thriller, and if it wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s hard to argue with a film that insists “the reasons we go to war always matter.” Can one man make a difference? this film asks. If his name is Paul Greengrass and he has this kind of team behind him, the answer is yes.