It’s no secret that movies about US involvement in Iraq (either in full or tangentially) have had a rough time finding an audience. Action films and dramas alike have been summarily ignored at the box-office purportedly by viewers uninterested in seeing their entertainment mixed with their nightly news. What is apparently a secret however is the fact that some of these movies just weren’t that good (Body of Lies), some were small independents that just failed to build any kind of awareness (Grace Is Gone), and some actually did okay for themselves at the box-office after all (The Kingdom). So what happens when an Iraq war movie that’s pretty damn good gets released with plenty of promotion behind it?
Green Zone takes us back to Iraq shortly after the invasion in 2003. Explosive battles are still being fought throughout the country and the capital city of Baghdad, and Chief Warrant Office Miller (Matt Damon) is leading a team with a singular goal… find the weapons of mass destruction, aka WMD’s, that helped lead to the invasion in the first place. Frustration soon builds though as time and again the US intel directing him to various sites comes up empty. His attempts to bring the issue to his superiors are dismissed immediately, but they do succeed in catching the attention of a CIA chief (Brendan Gleeson) who knows more than he’s sharing and a journalist (Amy Ryan) who has been the lead voice feeding WMD stories to the American public. Miller soon discovers that something is rotten in the state of Iraq and sets out to find the truth, but a high-ranking US official (Greg Kinnear) has the temerity to tell him he can’t handle the truth. Fool! You’d think at this point no one would be silly enough to try and hide answers from Bourne Damon…
Pre-release jabs referring to Green Zone as The Bourne Insurgency (thanks Will Goss!) are at least slightly on target thanks to more than just the obvious re-teaming of talent. Director Paul Greengrass and Damon are together again after two very successful Bourne sequels, and the visual pairing seems at times almost identical. Damon’s Army Officer carries himself with the same authority and confidence as Bourne, the shaky-cam style is still on display throughout but most visibly during action scenes, the score by John Powell is the same high intensity accompaniment he brought to the Bourne films, and there’s even a scene with Miller behind the wheel that could easily pass for a chase scene in any of the super spy’s bumper-car-filled world travels.
But is any of that really a bad thing?
Obviously if you’re not a fan of Greengrass’ patented shaky-cam style then you’d do well to avoid Green Zone, but if you enjoyed both of his Bourne movies then you’ll most certainly enjoy this. The action, energy, and intensity are all working in top form as the movie hits the ground running and rarely lets up for air. The film’s major accomplishment is that it takes a historical situation… the search for WMD’s in Iraq that we all know ended in failure… and still manages to make a suspenseful film around it. We know Miller won’t find anything but we’re caught up in his frantic and pulse-racing search anyway.
Just as divisive as Greengrass’ camera style will be the film’s obvious political slant. There are definite bad guys here, and not all of them are Iraqi… spoiler alert (but not really), the US government lies. Some people will take the movie’s plot turns as blatant liberal propaganda when in reality it’s simply dramatic fodder that has been in use as long as there have been political thrillers. Accusations of a leftist agenda in Green Zone are lazy commentaries from the unimaginative always in search of a liberal whipping post. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t repeat its message that America lied a few too many times… But seriously, the US government was also behind 9/11 and AIDS.
There are some legitimate issues with Green Zone though. For one thing Miller is able to acquire answers at an alarmingly simple rate. Obviously he works for some of it, but often he simply has to ask. He needs information, and Gleeson’s CIA director pops into frame with the essential piece. He needs some more, and Ryan’s Wall Street Journal reporter is ready to reveal it. I realize the film is trying to tell a story in a tight and heightened time frame, but if it were that easy this could have actually happened. The other issue is more of a quibble, but the pace of the action and story is so fast that we never get the chance to really get to know Miller. He’s an honest and concerned patriot from frame one and spends the entire film fulfilling that role, but we never learn a single thing about him. You could argue that we’re learning about him through his actions, but a little backstory to humanize a character is never a bad thing.
Khalid Abdalla does a fantastic job as a concerned Iraqi citizen who provides Miller with information and then gets dragged along for the remaining ride. He puts a human face to an otherwise generic populace, and he also gets to deliver the movie’s best and most honest line. You’ll know it when you hear it (it’s the last thing he says). The other actor who deserves credit here is Damon himself. You wouldn’t think to look at him that he could command the respect required as an action star (especially after seeing him in The Informant!) but he does a fantastic job of it time and again. He’s believable in his actions and his sincerity, and he once again grounds what could have easily become a more generic exercise in gunfire and explosions.
Green Zone is a solid action film that wants to dig a little deeper into historical relevance than most others in the genre. Does it accomplish that at the expense of some questionable truths? Most certainly, but first and foremost the movie is out to entertain, and in that regard it succeeds brilliantly. We all know what happened over the past seven years, maybe not all of the details, but enough to know that not everything was as it once seemed. Certain “facts” were accepted too easily by a frightened and unmotivated American people, and the movie posits that somewhere out there someone actually cared enough to stand up against our democratically elected overlords. To paraphrase another film with a vaguely similar theme… Miller isn’t the hero America deserved. He’s the hero America needed.
The Upside: Manages to find suspense in a story with a foregone conclusion; fantastic action scenes; fast paced
The Downside: Some information is discovered way too easy in the quest for expediency; the pace leaves zero time to get to know Miller with any degree of depth; we get it, the government lied about the WMD’s
On the Side: I have a brilliant story idea for the fourth Bourne film that would bring the character back into action in an organic and believable way. Seriously. Now I just have to write it up and convince Matt Damon to read it…