Running on Empty in the Greengrass 'Zone'
Richard T. Jameson, Special to MSN Movies
If you were producing a thriller set in post-"shock and awe" Iraq, Paul Greengrass might well top your directorial wish list. After "Bloody Sunday" (2002), about a 1972 massacre in Northern Ireland, and his Oscar-nominated work on "United 93" (2006), Greengrass has become the go-to guy for recreating moments of modern crisis with cinéma-vérité immediacy; and in "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004) and "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007) he triumphantly applied the same jagged, don't-you-dare-blink style to purely fictional subjects. "Green Zone" succeeds in persuading us we're in Baghdad, April 2003, being jostled by the chaos that overtook the Iraqi capital and its U.S. occupiers in the weeks following Saddam's fall. Notably less persuasive is the attempt to mount a fiction worthy of the occasion.
That's not altogether surprising. The movie's source (apart from reality still vivid in memory) is a work of nonfiction, Washington Post Baghdad chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "Mystic River") could take inspiration from the book's wealth of atmospheric and absurdist detail, but for the nitty-gritty of storytelling they were on their own.
The story they've cooked up is pretty conventional, even old-hat; before it's done we've been reminded of bits of other movies, many of them better than this one. Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an Army chief warrant officer charged with following leads to possible weapons-of-mass-destruction storage sites, can't help noticing that the intel, absolutely vouched for by U.S. government reps, is consistently bogus. He starts nosing around, soon with the encouragement of Baghdad CIA chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson in redoubtably crusty mode). It seems there's an elusive Iraqi collaborator, code-named "Magellan," whom just about everyone has urgent, albeit very different, reasons for wanting to get their hands on.
There's a raid on a cabal of Baathist leaders, myriad fast shufflings of allegiance and trust among people who ostensibly are "all on the same side," and eventually a terminate-with-extreme-prejudice order issued to a hissably villainous Special Forces officer (Jason Isaacs), which leads to more raids, lots of bloodshed, and much skulking in narrow, murky alleys.
This is all staged with Greengrass' customary dynamism, although not always with the clarity and deftness of his last "Bourne" enterprise. (Sometimes we're not sure who just did something and the ambiguity has a payoff; sometimes it's just who-was-that?) If it were all merely an action-thriller with only glancing connection to recent history, we could signal thumbs-up and go home reasonably content.
But despite the filmmakers' declarations in various interviews that their film takes no position on our Iraq (mis)adventure, there's no ignoring the glaring, one-on-one correspondences. Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the All-American Boy director of special intel who offers a dismayingly crude bribe/warning to Miller, is clearly a stand-in for U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer; the Wall Street Journal correspondent (Amy Ryan) who's raised her star power by keeping WMD stories in the pipeline summons up the shade of The New York Times' Judith Miller; the Iraqi exile who hasn't been back in 30 years yet has been embraced as the U.S. government's expert on Iraqi reality is Ahmad Chalabi under another name; and so forth.
What's disconcerting about this is the imaginative shortfall, how little Greengrass and Helgeland do with the real-life material they've poached. The logic of the story line in "Green Zone" adds up to an indictment of the Bush administration for invoking WMD as a reason to invade Iraq and then doing everything possible to maintain the fiction. Mark that mission accomplished. But any tension this might have had, as Miller made his way toward discovering what the audience already knows, is flattened by trite casting (Kinnear, Isaacs), thin writing (the excellent Ryan has little to work with), and some thumping assertions that sound like old-time Hollywood liberal Stanley Kramer at his most tendentious.
As ever, Damon does yeoman duty and carries the film to the finish line. The best scenes involve Roy Miller's rapport with an English-speaking Iraqi named Freddy who steps up to do what's best for his country. (Freddy's played by Khalid Abdalla, who led the "United 93" jihadists and also starred in 2007's "The Kite Runner.") Having each of them personify the best in their respective national characters is overly neat, of course, but it's also consoling in the circumstances, and together they sound a humane note of perplexity. Miller: "Why are you running?" Freddy: "Why are you chasing me?" We're all still trying to answer that one.
Richard T. Jameson has been editor of Movietone News (1971-81) and Film Comment (1990-2000) magazines, as well as Seattle's Queen Anne News (2003-2007). He has been a member of the National Society of Film Critics since 1980.