So vivid and convincingly realistic is the physical depiction of Baghdad in the early days of the American occupation that the introduction of trumped-up thriller elements feels like an unwanted intrusion in “Green Zone.” A companion piece to “United 93” as a portrayal of American reaction — this time misguided — to 9/11, Paul Greengrass’ high-voltage action drama does a better job of defining where the U.S. went hopelessly wrong on Iraq than it does in creating a plausible suspense scenario. The acclaim for “The Hurt Locker” notwithstanding, the commercial jinx of Iraq War stories has yet to be broken, although, with a vigorously virile Matt Damon leading the charge, this Universal release should go a bit further at the B.O. than its predecessors.
Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have devised a storyline, involving a committed but quickly skeptical soldier’s search for weapons of mass destruction, that comfortably doubles as an incisive critique of the false premise upon which the Bush Administration based its invasion. The interlocking of form and content remains intact for at least the first half of the picture, but once Damon’s one-man truth squad goes off the reservation and starts behaving too much like Jason Bourne for comfort, the film begins not only spilling more blood but also leaking crucial credibility.
Notably, the picture is credited as having been “inspired” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s superb book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” rather than “based” on it. Having covered the Middle East and the Iraq War for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran wrote a pointed nonfiction tome that detailed the arrogant, absurd and tragic aspects of the Americans’ behavior, naming names and documenting everything, but with a tone that often recalled the darkly comic vein of “Catch-22” or “MASH.”
This prompts the question of whether the public is ready for a bleakly humorous cinematic treatment of Iraq. The answer to that is, in the right hands, any subject is fair game for humor. But Greengrass is very far from being that sort of filmmaker. Employing his customary whiplash style of shooting and editing, he wants to plunk the viewer right down in the hellish anarchy that Baghdad soon became in 2003 after the Americans rolled in and were faced with far greater challenges on the ground than they anticipated.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) has a single objective: to find the WMD the U.S. government is certain Saddam Hussein has hidden in various sites around Iraq. As every location he and his small unit search turns up empty, it doesn’t take long for Miller to conclude there’s something wrong with Pentagon intelligence. But the last guy who wants to hear this is Washington’s newly arrived viceroy, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who can’t be bothered with doubts that might interfere with his mission to reshape Iraq into a Middle Eastern bastion of American-style democracy.
Also on the scene is Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), whose articles have long seconded the administration’s conviction about WMD due to intel provided by a confidential source called “Magellan.” Amusingly, the character who is depicted in the most favorable light, in that he recognizes the game for what it is, is old CIA hand Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Grizzled and cynical like a character out of Graham Greene, Brown is derided by Poundstone as a “dinosaur,” but he provides Miller with an unlikely source of support and backdoor assistance.
From the opening scenes, which first depict Iraqi officials’ flight in the wake of “shock and awe,” then Miller’s initial mission as his men take out a sniper firing from an alleged WMD hideaway, Greengrass again asserts himself as the foremost practitioner of “you are there” filmmaking. Locations in three different countries — Spain, Morocco and the U.K. — are brilliantly integrated to rep Baghdad, Saddam’s grandiose palace and surrounding areas, and production designer Dominic Watkins deserves a special salute for the verisimilitude of what’s onscreen at every moment.
Would that the invented scenario were as entirely convincing. Once Poundstone realizes Miller is no longer onboard with the administration’s program, the gung-ho soldier is forced to go rogue. Increasingly functioning as a proxy private detective or investigative reporter, Miller, aided by a wonderful local character named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), is able to pursue the Magellan mystery when he locates a cabal of former Saddam insiders, leading to a frenetic and rather protracted nocturnal action climax that feels far too concocted as a genre film payoff to play well here. A number of far-fetched coincidences and contrivances add to the undesired impression of narrative artifice.
Press notes quote Greengrass to the effect that “Green Zone” was not designed to promote any political agenda — a disingenuous remark, to say the least, when his film concludes with a shot of a giant oil refinery. Basically, the picture is the first narrative feature to have digested and synthesized the essential information expressed in Charles Ferguson’s superlative 2007 docu “No End in Sight,” about the misconceptions, miscalculations and misrepresentations involved in Bush’s Iraq policies. And while the usual disclaimer insists that all the characters herein are fictitious, it’s crystal-clear that Poundstone is Paul Brenner and Dayne is former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
The jittery camerawork, familiar from Greengrass’ previous work and here implemented by Barry Ackroyd, achieves visceral reactions at times, but at other moments one yearns for the sort of visual sharpness with which similar scenes of urban combat were shot in “Black Hawk Down.” Visual effects make possible some exceptional panoramic vistas of Baghdad under siege.