It's only been seven years since the U.S. led a multinational invasion of Iraq that deposed the dictator Saddam Hussein (which was good), but then failed to find the weapons of mass destruction that had supposedly invited our visit (which was very bad). It was a period rich in intrigue and contending characters — the Western intelligence hotshots, the Republican Guards and Ba'ath loyalists, the scheming weasels like Ahmed Chalabi. Who could forget?
Well, anyone could. And so "Green Zone," the new movie by director Paul Greengrass, may be hard for some viewers to digest. Because not only does the picture re-stir that chunky political stew, it thickens it with fiction. And Greengrass, who forged a powerful action style out of hand-held camera work in the second and third "Bourne" movies (among other films), here goes totally over to the shaky-cam side. There's not one stable shot in the whole movie — even a scene with two guys talking at a table is filmed as if there were a riot going on. So, what with all the whip pans and night blurs and general visual chaos, it can be difficult, even if you remember the real-life players, to work out who the elusive General Al Rawi is supposed to be; or the Pentagon spook-master who's so chummy with that Wall Street Journal reporter; or the money-funneling CIA agent, who turns out to be — in a Hollywood movie! — one of the good guys.
Films that undertake to deal with America's Middle East incursions — "Rendition," "Redacted," "Lions for Lambs," "In the Valley of Elah" — have a dismal box-office history; even the Oscar-winning "Hurt Locker" hasn't sold a lot of tickets. So this picture, which reunites Greengrass with the admirable Matt Damon, is being optimistically marketed as a straight-on action epic — "Bourne 4." Which, believe me, it isn't.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, leader of an army team that's scouring Baghdad for those vast stashes of WMD — and coming up empty-handed. Miller is beginning to suspect that the intelligence fueling this search is wrong, maybe fabricated. Pentagon fixer Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, in full sleaze) tells him to shut up. But CIA station head Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, indelibly Irish) knows Miller is onto something. On the other hand, Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) remains convinced the intel is genuine, because she knows its provenance — a super-secret source with the code name Magellan, to whose debriefings she has conveniently been made privy.
Here the movie nudges us with its political bent. Dayne is clearly meant to represent Judith Miller, the reporter who actually was snookered into promoting the WMD story line in her internationally influential newspaper. But Miller didn't file (or co-file) her anonymously-sourced reports for The Wall Street Journal — the paper she wrote for was The New York Times, which was ultimately compelled to express regret for publishing several dispatches on which she had worked. It's also a little odd that the most vicious character in the movie is a U.S. Special Forces officer named Briggs (Jason Isaacs with a bandido mustache), while the fugitive Al Rawi (Igal Naor), the man who holds the key to the WMD puzzle, is considerably more sympathetic — even though, as one of Saddam's top generals, he was presumably complicit in the years-long regime of torture, rape and mass murder that the dictator inflicted on his own people.
But the political underpinnings of the Iraq War are murky enough to accommodate any number of interpretations. What sinks "Green Zone" — which was "inspired by" a book by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran — is its insufficiency as a moviegoing experience. It's an action movie if it's anything (who will thrill to its rehash of recent history?), but it's an action movie with no sense of adventure. The "Bourne" pictures swept us off to places like Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Goa; they also had romantic interest. This film, unavoidably, is confined to the dusty rubble of Baghdad (recreated largely in Morocco); and Dayne, its lone female character, is a cold emotional cipher. Damon is as compelling a presence as always, and the other main actors are equally sharp (especially Khalid Abdalla as a conflicted Iraqi called Freddy). But the story feels tired, and we can see why the movie's release was delayed for so long. It may soldier on to DVD more quickly than expected.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of Robert Pattinson's "Remember Me," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Green Zone."
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