Think of it as ‘The Bourne Locker’. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93) and his action muse Matt Damon have teamed up a third time to bring us The Green Zone, a frenzied, fast-paced war thriller that races through the turbulent streets of Baghdad looking for elusive WMDs.
It’s probably fortunate for Damon and the gang that this is opening in the wake of Bigelow’s Oscar win, because they are going to need that initial interest. Once you’ve seen The Green Zone, you aren’t likely to think much on it either way.
The Green Zone is a fictional adventure based off of the details collected in Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a book by former Washington Post writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Chandrasekaran’s book and Greengrass’ film return to the milieu of Iraq in 2003 and casts a long look at the invasion itself and the faulty intel that brought it about.
All these years later, I imagine there are few that will argue that a mistake was made in regards to pinpointing the existence of those weapons in Iraq. Placing exact blame on the factors responsible is harder. What The Green Zone argues is that manipulation and conspiracy exist at the center, and a complex plot is married to typical action clichÃ©s to make the story palatable for an audience that goes to the movies to be entertained.
Greengrass understands that last point, and that this is largely the reason previous war films backfired. They were showing up to kick and pull at a wound still fresh in the mind of many Americans, and stab, stab, stab at a subject that not even all are in agreement on. The Hurt Locker worked because of its distance from the political machinations on high and its closeness to the actual soldier down on the ground, ducking and covering.
What Greengrass misses, however, is that Bigelow was working to tell a unique story with action tools, not cleverly cloud a heated political message with Jason Bourne charging through the Middle-East on a mission of righteous indignation, followed by a camera that appears to be tethered to a tilt-a-whirl.
The movie is not a bad one, however, and it does work as a rather breathless thrill ride, at least for a while. Damon plays Roy Miller, the chief warrant officer in Baghdad after the U.S. occupation. Miller is responsible for tracking down the WMDs and with each new, failed attempt to find anything he’s growing more and more impatient. Much of this has to do with the fact his team is sustaining casualties as they proceed. Miller is getting conflicted information too; bureaucrat Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) is insistent that the intelligence they have is correct while a CIA agent, Mark Brown, tells Roy that they aren’t going to find any WMDs at any of the sites and that the alleged informant ‘Magellan’ is a ruse.
The story that follows is a labyrinthine track through the turbulent world of Iraq after the liberation a jaunt through all kinds of political skullduggery with Damon’s Miller at the very heart of it, plunging in to discover, if he can, where the truth actually lies. Eventually Miller finds himself being shot at by his own men, and when he goes on the run, things heat up. Greengrass has visually designed The Green Zone as less in-your-face and aggressive than his previous two Bourne movies, but it fails to really capture the structure and reality of United 93, his compelling look at the occupants of that fateful flight on 9/11. The camera moves less, but there’s still the shaky, agitated cam movements that are starting to lose any interest or impact they might have had these days. What he does get right is the pacing.
This is a terrifically tense film for almost of all its running time, and regardless of political positions or affiliations, viewers will be drawn in by Miller’s quest and the twists and turns that he encounters. It’s hard to argue with an action movie well done and a charismatic, focused lead. Damon works in this role because he worked as Bourne, and he uses that performance and character as shorthand to get the audience on his side and believe he’s a man of action capable of the things he’s doing in this movie.
What ultimately strands me though is the shifting focus of the film. While it’s approached as a direct indictment of the administration of the time, and as a kind of ‘real life’ conspiracy theory, Greengrass and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland don’t allow the movie to exist as a plausible drama for very long. It devolves quickly into the kinds of action tropes and lazy storytelling short hand you see all the time in would-be adrenaline rush, popcorn thrillers. It just isn’t the right choice for the material. There are two movies here. One is sharp and provocative, although lacking in conviction, and the other is straight forward and boisterous, handing out the action it thinks moviegoers are looking for. It may sound like the protests of a Philistine, but just give me the action movie next time.
The result of this restless combination is that although it’s riveting while you watch it, the very moment Green Zone ends it begins to fade away into the grainy, blurred vortex that the last few Bourne pictures occupy. All these months later I still have the visuals of Bigelow’s bomb unit uncovering a dead Iraqi child with an explosive sewn into his chest. On the ride home, Miller’s Jack Bauer antics had all but vanished from the forefront, leaving little lasting impression.