Running time 115 minutes
Written by BRIAN HELGELAND
Directed by PAUL GREENGRASS
Starring MATT DAMON, GREG KINNEAR, AMY RYAN, BRENDAN GLEESON
2 Eyeballs out of 4
A Superman epic masquerading as a political exposé The Green Zone is one of those crypto-technical thrillers I usually have to consult a 10-year-old child to explain to me. This time, with The Green Zone riding on the bare-bottomed Oscar backside of The Hurt Locker, nothing could be simpler. It’s a deeply flawed fictionalization of events widely believed to be true (but still unproven) about the political corruption of the U.S. military, which, in backroom collusion with the alleged lies and greed of the George Bush administration, plunged us into an illegal war in Iraq we can’t get out of. Shot by Barry Ackroyd, the same cinematographer who filmed The Hurt Locker, and using the same camera techniques, this movie looks like outtakes from a much better film. The battle footage and the chaos of war seem like the work of a rewind button. Paul Greengrass, who turned the Jason Bourne series into sharp but incoherent political hash, gets the horror and confusion of disoriented kids meeting death in the streets of Baghdad, but Kathryn Bigelow got there first.
Iraq, 2003. Matt Damon, looking like the shortstop from a high-school baseball team, plays Roy Miller, a junior crusader and patriotic chief warrant officer dispatched to search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (hereafter referred to as “WMDs”), yelling, “This is a disaster!” He must have read the script. More dialogue: “This is a WMD site!” and “There are no WMDs here!” Believing the intelligence reports to be inaccurate, Roy tries to speak the truth, but he gets thumped down by all major thumbs. This is not a movie about the good guys vs. the bad guys. Mr. Damon is the single good guy. Everyone else is a two-faced villain working for an evil, despicable Pentagon that reports directly to an evil, despotic (and totally brain-dead) commander in chief. It’s a case of David and Goliath as Mr. Damon tries to convince everyone in charge that they’re on a wild goose chase, but he gets slam-dunked by rival factions: Brendan Gleeson as a veteran C.I.A. operative who agrees the military is doing nothing more than “rolling doughnuts” (whatever that means), and a manipulative Pentagon special intelligence damage-control power freak (a miscast, baby-faced Greg Kinnear) who gives all the wrong orders with no regard for the growing number of American body bags. Not to mention a hack reporter (Amy Ryan) who spreads false information in The Wall Street Journal (reportedly based on New York Times correspondent Judith Miller). Mr. Damon predicts (accurately, it turns out) that if you ignore the powerful Iraqi Army in a country filled with ethnic division and political cross purposes, it will lead to civil war. Nobody listens. Predictable rogue vengeance ensues. This movie should have been made five years ago; the impact now is negligible.
The convoluted script, which spouts laughable clichés (“Democracy is messy!”), is by Brian Helgeland, who has written some great movies (Mystic River, L. A. Confidential) and some real stinkers (The Vampire’s Assistant, Payback). His reference here is Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a political best seller by Rajiv Chandrasekran, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post who was the Baghdad bureau chief in 2003. That controversial book named names, accusing the Coalition Provisional Authority of trying to impose something akin to a civilian dictatorship, ruled by American administrator L. Paul Bremer, whose name has been changed in the film to the Clark Poundstone character played by Mr. Kinnear. In a disclaimer, Universal Pictures now wants everyone to accept The Green Zone as solely a work of Brian Helgeland’s imagination—an indication that the original author eschews any association with a second-rate Hollywood action programmer designed as a vehicle for Matt Damon. The blame for the continuing farce in Iraq is now assigned to fictional characters, and no reason is ever made clear why the U.S. was so hell-bent on staging a full-scale attack on Iraq in the first place. The question of idealism vs. political dementia, greed and military arrogance is a familiar one that arrives too late to make much difference, and—more important—it’s a theory that is still very hypothetical. The egg on the face of the Bush administration is, in retrospect, as hard to wash off as Texas barbecue sauce, but the extent of Bush and Co. duplicity is still unproven. I hate to say it, because I was counting on a more powerful movie, but without proof, based on nothing more tenable than gossip, rumors and conjecture, this film suffers from the faint aroma of comic-strip heroism in the guise of liberal propaganda.
The whole thing rings of disappointing déjà vu. Director Greengrass goes for grainy, dizzying, handheld cameras to make you feel you are smack in the middle of hell, but Steven Spielberg did it better than anyone in Saving Private Ryan. Mr. Damon works hard to make his heroic character truthful, but the follow-the-dots screenplay turns everyone into such war-scarred clichés that the friction between Roy and everyone else seems recycled, too. Roy lies, conceals evidence, violates his oath and ignores his orders—it’s a mystery why he isn’t court-martialed, but every time he crawls out of the mud and heads for a hotel, a pressed suit fresh from the dry cleaner’s awaits him without a wrinkle in sight. With no real third act, it renders an unpopular war as just another pointless conflict to be judged by future history books. Without the courage of their convictions or the guts to name actual names, the people who made Green Zone leave you with a feeling of been there, done that, and what else is new. It doesn’t help that we know there is no ending. We’re still there, where the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be … ourselves.