As the camera jerked and joggled its way through an impossible-to-follow action sequence late in The Green Zone (Universal), I found myself thinking: "Damn, I'm sick of faux-documentary-style hand-held cinematography. This feels like ersatz Paul Greengrass at its worst." Then I remembered: The Green Zone is directed by Paul Greengrass. The man whose raw, bare-bones style made the second two Bourne films such visceral action thrillers and who recreated the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in the difficult-to-watch United 93 (a movie that made me morally queasy but that was undeniably well-crafted) has turned his attention to the early days of the Iraq war. The script was adapted by Brian Helgeland from a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and it reimagines the events of the spring of 2003 in a way that's analogous to Quentin Tarantino's feverish rewriting of the Second World War in Inglourious Basterds. What if, instead of all the awful shit that really, historically happened, some good guys had found a way to save the day?
The Green Zone's principal good guy is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an Army warrant officer who, as the movie opens, has just conducted his third fruitless search for WMD based on top-secret military intelligence. At a meeting, he dares to question the reliability of that intelligence, which gets him in hot water with his superiors. Convinced that something fishy is afoot, Miller leaves the field to poke around Baghdad's protected "green zone" for answers. A CIA operative (Brendan Gleeson) hints that the Iraqi tipster known as "Magellan" may be a fabrication, while a Rumsfeldian neocon from the Defense Department (Greg Kinnear) blandly assures Miller that it's best not to look too closely into the reasons behind the war or the way it's being waged: "Democracy is messy."
Outside the borders of the green zone, Miller encounters two Iraqis who are either trying to help him or leading him into a trap: a civilian (Khalid Abdalla) who claims to have a map of insurgent "safe houses" and a general from the disbanded Iraqi army (Yigal Naor) who's been tagged by the Pentagon as a terrorist leader. Every so often, Amy Ryan shows up as a credulous Wall Street Journal reporter duped by bad intelligence—a transparent stand-in for New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
As an action-adventure thriller, The Green Zone holds up fairly well, despite a few significant plot holes and a rather large dollop of Greengrass' trademark shaky-cam. Damon is likable in his squinty, stolid Bourne mode, and Brendan Gleeson is terrific as the Cassandra-like spy; he not only ably discards his Irish accent but invents a great American one, a pinched, nasal Midwestern twang. But the movie (which was shot two years ago and has been sitting on Universal's shelf ever since) feels stale, its anti-war message stuck in the mid-2000s. When we see Bush on a TV screen in the green zone declaring "Mission accomplished!" on that aircraft carrier, the irony lands with a thud. Haven't we been sickened by the hypocrisy of that speech for the better part of a decade now? Of course, the deceptions that occurred in the run-up to the war and the first weeks after the invasion are no less outrageous in 2010 than they were in 2003. But seven years into the Iraq quagmire, we need more from our political filmmakers than an angry fist (and a hand-held camera) shaken in the Bush administration's direction.
Damon's conversations with Gleeson touch on a post-Iraq invasion story that, had Greengrass taken the time with it, would have made for a better movie: the impact of the disastrous decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and police forces, creating a huge underclass of unemployed and disgruntled men with a motive to rise up against the occupying forces. As documented in both Chandrasekaran's book and Thomas Ricks' remarkable Fiasco, the factors that went into turning our mission in Iraq into such a nightmarish debacle were enormously complex. To suggest that a lone, brave soldier could have set things right with a little amateur sleuthing seems like cinematic wish-fulfillment, an insult both to the intelligence of viewers and to the troops who, years after learning the truth about WMD in Iraq, are still living with the consequences of the Bush administration's chicanery.
Slate V: The critics on The Green Zone and other new releases