No stopping in the Green Zone

Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass reunite for another intense slam-bang action flick

Lucky timing delivers Green Zone to theaters the same week The Hurt Locker won six Academy Awards. Both of the high-testosterone, heavy-ordnance action flicks find thrills in the Iraq War, so they serve as bookends, even though they maintain diametrically opposite tones. The Hurt Locker ignored politics to focus on a 1994 Baghdad bomb-disposal unit. It zeroed in so closely on the process of locating and defusing explosives that its deliberate pace generated nerve-wracking suspense.

Where The Hurt Locker lights a slow fuse, Green Zone’s jittery, propulsive narrative goes off more like a string of firecrackers. Director Paul Greengrass applies the same choppy editing and shaky-cam techniques of his Bourne movies to the search for WMDs in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.’s 1993 invasion of Iraq. Compared to The Hurt Locker’s apolitical stance, Green Zone takes aim at Bush administration decisions that mishandled the Iraqi occupation. It’s like the devastating documentary No End in Sight, remade as a slam-bang action flick.

Green Zone follows soldiers across war-torn Baghdad, but less resembles a war movie than one of those police dramas about an honest cop who bucks the system to uncover the truth. Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a warrant officer tasked with finding weapons of mass destruction. The film opens with Miller and his team arriving at one allegedly secure site to find it overrun by looters and bedeviled by a sniper. Amid the chaos, a composed Miller and his unit take out the hostile sharpshooter. When they finally inspect the site, though, they turn up mundane industrial equipment covered in years of pigeon shit.

“The intelligence is bad,” Miller declares. He attempts to go up the chain of command to uncover why none of enigmatic informer “Magellan’s” tips have materialized. The figures Miller encounters include a reporter (Amy Ryan) whose stories about Magellan paved the way to war; a stonewalling Pentagon yes-man (Greg Kinnear) motivated more by wishful thinking than wartime realities; and a CIA honcho (Brendan Gleeson), who shares Miller’s frustrations. Referring to the intelligence veteran, Kinnear’s character sniffs, “He’s been in the Middle East a long time. He’s got a lot of preconceived notions,” as if practical experience is a liability.

Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland adapted Green Zone from journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2006 nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Reviewers have described the book as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War, but Green Zone uses the scenes with the Americans primarily as connective tissue between intense set pieces. Miller tries to track down an Iraqi general who knows the truth about the WMDs and could arrest the country’s descent into chaos. Miller’s uneasy relationship with an Iraqi citizen turned reluctant interpreter (United 93’s Khalid Abdalla) becomes a metaphor for the American treatment of Iraq.

To sustain momentum, Green Zone cuts some narrative corners. Damon establishes Miller as such a focused professional it’s difficult to imagine him bucking the system to the extent he eventually does. When Green Zone shows a clip from Bush’s regrettable “Mission Accomplished” speech, the dig feels dated and obvious. The film’s more successful when it actually shows the consequences of misguided decisions. Perhaps Greengrass, having made the chilling 9/11 film United 93, wanted to express his politics overtly.

Near the end, some lengthy chases through poorly lit Baghdad streets lack visual coherence. Though initially effective, the soundtrack’s booming drums become repetitive. (You know the part of the song “In the Air Tonight” when the drums kick in? It’s like that — on a loop.) Nevertheless, Green Zone manages to be far more exciting than other films about the Iraq War — and far more substantial than glossy, forgettable international thrillers such as Body of Lies. Even if some of its arguments seem familiar, its indignation feels fresh to the point of rawness. As Miller says in the film, “The reasons why we go to war always matter.”