Imagine a version of All The President’s Men where Woodward and Bernstein engage in pitched running gun battles. That, in many ways, sums up what Paul Greengrass is going for in Green Zone, the movie where he tries to marry the United 93 side of his career to the Bourne Ultimatum side.
For the most part he succeeds. Green Zone is unrelenting in its pace and action, a film that rarely lets up from chases and gunfights and tactical assaults. Matt Damon is Chief Warrant Officer Jason Miller, part of the fresh invasion force in Iraq in 2003. Miller and his men are tasked with going in to locations where the military believes Saddam’s WMD are hidden, but time and again they come up empty. Sick of putting American lives on the line in a goose chase, Miller begins investigated just where the WMD intelligence came from; meanwhile, the same people who are giving Miller that intel are making decisions that is slowly inching Iraq toward an insurgency.
Miller isn’t exactly Jason Bourne, but it’s occasionally easy to get the two mixed up as Matt Damon runs through the streets followed by Greengrass’ patented shaky cam. Still, nobody at Universal would be unhappy if you went to Green Zone because you thought you were getting Bourne in Iraq, which is kind of how they’re selling it – mostly because Iraq War movies have proven to be fairly unpopular at the box office.
And that’s too bad, because some folks might walk away disappointed as a result. While the action is intense and well done, it doesn’t have the ‘just this side of fantasy’ element of the Bourne films; Miller’s a regular guy, and while he’s getting his hands dirty, he’s doing it in a very real world way. And it’s kind of unfair to what Greengrass has been able to do with the film – not only does the movie deliver the excitement audiences want in an action movie, it manages to make some really coherent and cogent points about the shenanigans that got us into Iraq, and about why the US of A being seen as a great deceiver is a bad thing all around. And Greengrass does it without coming across as didactic or overly political; he takes the accepted trappings of a paranoid thriller and finds that it perfectly fits Iraq in the lead up to and days following the invasion.
Damon’s a strong lead as Miller; the character is so straight and narrow and decent that he threatens to become completely flat. Damon’s able to imbue him with life, though, finding the subtle humanity in Miller’s almost robotic forward momentum towards his goal. Miller begins the film bouncing between two poles – the smarmy Pentagon dickhead played by Greg Kinnear (who could do this in his sleep, and who utterly nails the Paul Bremeresque douchebag) and the haggard but goodhearted CIA man played by Brendan Gleeson (who has a real problem with his accent. Gleeson’s great, but I wish he had gone for a more pronounced New England sound to hide his brogue). A lesser actor would have had Miller a blank, but Damon is able to prove that decency doesn’t have to be cinematically boring.
Amy Ryan is the journalist whose pre-war stories – fed to her by Kinnear, and utter fabrications – helped get the invasion rolling. Now she’s in Iraq trying to get to the bottom of it. And at the other end of the spectrum is United 93 terrorist Khalid Abdalla, who plays Freddy, an Iraqi national who acts as Miller’s translator and helps him work his way into the rabbit hole of Saddam’s missing generals – the famous faces on the deck of cards. Freddy’s a great character, one who at first seems pretty cut and dried as a stereotypical ‘Good Arab,’ but who ends up having layers of complexity that go beyond two dimensional nonsense.
The standout supporting actor, though, is Jason Isaacs. Almost unidentifiable behind a Village People mustache, Isaacs plays a Special Forces soldier who gets a truly badass introduction – he hops off a helicopter and essentially beats the shit out of Matt Damon. It’s a great moment because it not only establishes Isaacs as a bad guy with power, but it also establishes that Damon isn’t playing Jason Bourne. Bourne could have taken this guy with one arm, but Miller is on the ground being forcibly searched by him, nose bloodied. In many ways Isaacs plays the dark shadow of Miller, the very loyal military guy who is driven and good at his job but who doesn’t question his orders. This is the kind of guy who tortures prisoners. Miller’s the guy who tries to get them medical attention. The movie doesn’t leave many questions as to which it considers to be the best sort of American.
For those who are troubled by Greengrass’ shaky camera work, I have bad news – it’s just as prevalent here as it was in The Bourne Ultimatum. I think it works marvelously; it’s incredible that Greengrass is able to get across action geography so efficiently while shaking the camera and cutting very quickly. Editor Chris Rouse has been working with Greengrass since The Bourne Supremacy and they have obviously figured out the mathematics of their editing style, using what must be an innate understanding of how we view these images to give us the information we need in such quick bursts. I saw the film a second time for this review and I took special note of the editing in the action scenes – there are some brief shots that work on a barely liminal level, where I’m not even entirely sure what it is that I was looking at. But when edited together in sequence these moments become the filmic equivalent of manga action lines, moments of pure kineticism that is action as opposed to simply showing action.
While Greengrass’ decision to adhere to the real world hems him in slightly when it comes to action, the film is filled with excellent action sequences that build up to an extended gun fight and chase that leads to a fateful confrontation. The ending reminded me mightily of The Bourne Supremacy, where all of the final action beats and car chases are revealed to be in the service of one grand character moment. We get that here as well, although it might not be the character moment many are expecting.
One of the disappointments in the film is that the action film aesthetic keeps the movie from really capturing the vibe of the source material, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Brian Helgeland’s script surely takes from that book – especially a scene where Miller’s weary and dirty men visit the Coalition HQ to find all the bureaucrats drinking beers and swimming in Saddam’s pool – but most of the incredible and surreal details that made post-invasion Iraq such a strange, upside down place end up backgrounded. I’d say that there’s still room to take the book and do another, completely different in tone and style, movie. Hell, reading the book put me much more in the mind of M*A*S*H than what Green Zone ended up being.
I eagerly await the general public’s response to the movie because I suspect that Greengrass has made a film that could piss off both sides of the aisle. There are folks in this country – good, red blooded folks who really enjoy the Bourne
movies – who believe that there were WMD after all, or who have sort of moved on past the issue. While Green Zone
doesn’t feel didactic – the CIA are the good guys, for Christ’s sake! – the very fact that it’s a movie about the Bush administration lying its way to war will piss them off. And on the other side are the liberals who might be irritated by Greengrass’ attitude, which comes quite close to reconciliation and atonement. In the end the damage is done and the guys who did it got away, but Greengrass ends the film with a look to the future, saying that the situation is fucked but there are good people on all sides, and they’re doing the best they can to set things right. For many liberals this is going to taste like ashes, even though it’s the basic truth - Green Zone
simply isn’t the kind of action movie that offers the closure of Matt Damon putting his gun in the mouth of the bureaucrat who lied to Congress and cost so many American boys their lives. There’s no mustache-twirling villain, simply people motivated by ideology and those they tricked along the way. The question that Green Zone leaves us with isn’t ‘Where are the WMD’ but ‘Can we come back from this?’ Greengrass seems to think we can.