Matt Damon stars in the Paul Greengrass film “Green Zone.”
By A. O. Scott
The NewYork Times
“We’re here to do a job,” says an American soldier in Baghdad, about a month after the United States-led invasion of Iraq and a third of the way into “Green Zone,” Paul Greengrass’s breakneck tour of street-level mayhem and official deceit. “The reasons don’t matter.”
“They matter to me,” says Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, played with steely efficiency by Matt Damon. Later, when his search for phantom weapons of mass destruction has led him to uncover a web of lies, spin and ideological wish-fulfillment, Miller expands on the point. “The reasons we go to war always matter,” he says, throwing in an expletive to make sure his meaning is clear. “They always matter.”
Miller’s words put him at odds with some of his comrades and with a military culture that discourages service members from questioning whatever mission they are charged with carrying out. But this dutiful, serious officer is also offering a pointed, if implicit, critique of a lot of other recent war movies that have carefully pushed political questions to one side in their intensive focus on the perils and pressures of combat.
There is plenty of fighting in “Green Zone,” most of it executed with the hurtling hand-held camerawork and staccato editing that are hallmarks of Mr. Greengrass’s style. From “Bloody Sunday” through the second and third “Bourne” movies (which turned Mr. Damon into a minimalist movie star), this director has honed his skill at balancing chaos with clarity. Using locations in Morocco and Spain uncannily doctored to resemble the Baghdad we know from documentaries and contemporary television news feeds, Mr. Greengrass (decisively aided by the stroboscopic vision of his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, who also shot “The Hurt Locker”) choreographs foot chases and gun battles that unfold with the velocity, complexity and precision of a Bach fugue played on overdrive.
But like all of the best action filmmakers — including Kathryn Bigelow, justly rewarded at this week’s Academy Awards for her stringent, soulful work on “The Hurt Locker” — Mr. Greengrass has never been interested in technique for its own sake. Action under pressure is, for him, a test and a revelation of character. “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” refined this axiom to its philosophical essence. Mr. Damon’s character in those movies never knew who he was until he saw what he did.
Miller, of course, is an ordinary fighter rather than an amnesiac superassassin, but his predicament is not so different from Jason Bourne’s. His motives become apparent to him only at the moment of decision, and the more confusing the circumstances, the more quickly he must react.
The crisis Miller faces is more ethical than existential. At first his assignment is straightforward, if also potentially hazardous: to help secure and take control of sites where Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are believed to be hidden. But as the members of Miller’s team repeatedly come up empty — risking their lives to raid vacant warehouses and abandoned factories — he finds himself uncovering a hidden history of manipulation and double-dealing. His simple questions concerning problems with the intelligence reports about the weapons lead him down a hall of mirrors, into conflicts far more tangled than the simple, black-and-white battle between democracy and tyranny.
To anyone who was paying attention in 2003 and after, this is familiar territory. Mr. Greengrass and the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, deftly glean material from the historical record, and while they compress, simplify and invent according to the imperatives of the genre — this is a thriller, not a documentary — they do so with seriousness and an impressive sense of scruples. They have clearly studied journalistic accounts of the early days of the war, citing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s vivid “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” as a particular inspiration, and while the picture they paint of infighting among the Americans and growing factionalism among the Iraqis may not be literally accurate in every particular, it has the rough authority of novelistic truth.
Miller’s questions about unreliable intelligence are brushed off by the higher-ups, in particular a Pentagon intelligence officer named Poundstone, played with perfect officiousness by Greg Kinnear. (It’s funny to think that the last time he and Mr. Damon met on screen, it was as quarrelsome conjoined twins in Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s “Stuck on You.”) Poundstone, with a direct line to the Bush White House and a mastery of its idioms — “democracy is messy,” he declares, paraphrasing Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld — is the film’s stand-in for a number of real-life figures, most of them not named because they don’t need to be.
As such, Poundstone is both a canny opportunist and a true believer, dispensing idealistic bromides even as he wields a mean Machiavellian stiletto. His nemesis is Martin Brown, a shambling C.I.A. man played by Brendan Gleeson, whose knowledge of the region leads him to predict sectarian bloodshed and political paralysis. Miller is sucked into the power struggle between these two officials and the agencies they represent, and he also makes contact with a journalist named Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who has been publishing misinformation about the weapons that comes, via Poundstone, from a shadowy Iraqi source. (Though she works for The Wall Street Journal, Dayne is likely to remind viewers of Judith Miller, the former reporter for The New York Times who was criticized after the invasion for reporting that helped to bolster the Bush administration’s case.)
Among the Americans in Baghdad, there is back-stabbing and miscommunication — people on the same side working at cross purposes and sometimes in direct conflict. Miller experiences this in a series of encounters with a Special Forces hotshot played by Jason Isaacs, who has a habit of showing up to undermine whatever Miller is doing, sometimes punching him in the face for good measure.
For the Iraqis things are much worse, and “Green Zone” is admirable in its refusal to make them bit players in their own nation’s drama even though the Americans occupy center stage. A Baathist general named Al Rawi (Igal Naor) lurks in the shadows, either a potential asset in the American effort to reconstruct the country or a dangerous obstacle. At Miller’s side is a man he calls Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), who serves as an informant and a translator and who expresses the deep ambivalence — the hope, the disappointment, the anger — of ordinary Iraqis who suffered under Hussein’s dictatorship and are not sure how much to trust their liberators.
“It is not you who will decide what happens here,” Freddy says to Miller, in one of the film’s forgivably pointed lines. I say forgivably because “Green Zone” seems to epitomize the ability of mainstream commercial cinema to streamline the complexities of the real world without becoming overly simplistic, to fictionalize without falsifying.
Pedants may object that the chase sequences and plot twists distort the facts, while thrill-seekers may complain that the politics get in the way of the explosions and firefights. And the inevitable huffing and puffing about this movie’s supposedly left-wing or “anti-American” agenda has already begun.
All of this suggests that the arguments embedded within the movie’s version of 2003 are still going on seven years later, and are still in need of accessible and honest airing. Which is precisely what “Green Zone,” without forsaking its job of entertainment, attempts. When Mr. Greengrass made “United 93,” his 2006 reconstruction of one of the Sept. 11 hijackings, some people fretted that it was too soon. My own response to “Green Zone” is almost exactly the opposite: it’s about time.
“Green Zone” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Violent action and language to match. Opens nationwide Friday.
See Related: FILM