On the verge of explosion: Matt Damon chases down WMDs in ‘Green Zone’
With the Oscar triumph of the Iraq war thriller “The Hurt Locker’’ fresh in our memories, Paul Greengrass’s “Green Zone’’ invites us back to the issue that started it all. Chief warrant officer Matt Damon races around Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. Funny thing, though: Every time he gets to a designated site, he and his men find nothing. Well, once they turn up a toilet (whose political symbolism the movie leaves up to us). Otherwise, every time, it’s that Geraldo-Rivera-opening-Al-Capone’s-vault feeling.
“Green Zone’’ is somewhere between a blockbuster and a tract — a traction movie. It whizzes and bangs and sizzles as it chases the truth like a dog off its leash. Brian Helgeland, who adapted “L.A. Confidential,’’ took the movie from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction account of the first year of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.’’ Helgeland balances the American operatives who manufacture reality with the more marketable hunt for bad guys and WMD.
The film feels in so many ways like one of those BBC miniseries, like “State of Play,’’ in which a fleet of characters are used as pawns in some larger narrative about the corrosive taint of a corrupt institution — nearly always the government. But a restlessness keeps the movie both unsettled and uninteresting. Greengrass applies the same mix of visual elan and brute force that brought alive the second and third Jason Bourne movies and turned the solemnity of “United 93’’ into a harrowingly physical affair.
Brute force may be a liability for a political thriller based on current events. You want that sinking feeling that things are worse than they seem. That comes only from suspense. And this time Greengrass’s approach doesn’t allow for suspense or speculation. His editor chops the shots down to mere seconds while the cameras plow from one pile of rubble and debris to the next. Unlike the “Bourne’’ movies or Greengrass’s first film, the Northern Ireland docudrama “Bloody Sunday,’’ “Green Zone’’ finds the director struggling to make the chases and shootouts navigable. Sometimes the dots of seconds-long images connect in an exciting way, like action-movie pointillism. There’s a violent nighttime search, for instance, where all the mayhem and quick shots become clear. The physical stuff is achieved by amassing tiny details. The human bits are done in broad strokes.
The plot to uncover whether there are WMDs and who’s covering up answers involves a shady, Karl Rove-style administration bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear), a CIA Middle East expert (Brendan Gleeson), a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) who’s been writing WMD stories using a dubious source, a la Judith Miller for The New York Times. Whenever Damon confronts Kinnear, Kinnear, looking severely clenched, may as well be saying, “No, Matt, there’s nothing behind that door at all. Why on earth would you think that?’’
It’s wrong to expect the pensive intimacy of “The Hurt Locker’’ from a Greengrass film. “Green Zone’’ moves too fast to think and its political ideas have been pre-argued to death. Both movies are about soldiers, one much more persuasively than the other. Damon’s chief warrant officer smells a rat and heroically hunts it down. The movie would actually make a decent Bush-era double feature with Roman Polanski’s much better “The Ghost Writer,’’ which is focused on a former British prime minister based on Tony Blair. Do we already miss these two and the cabals they may or may not have been involved in?
There remains a “Dr. Strangelove’’-caliber farce to be made from Chandrasekaran’s book. Barring that, I’d take the ruthless vulgarity of “In the Loop.’’ Somewhat to their credit and despite Kinnear’s obviousness, Helgeland and Greengrass don’t find the Bush administration’s chicanery a laughing matter. But there’s a disjunction between the script’s seriousness and the sense of chaos that brings it to life.
If tremulous 100-yard-dash camerawork is Greengrass’s voice, this sort of movie might not be the song for him. Helgeland’s script doesn’t just suspect conspiracy. It’s certain there is corruption. And righteousness doesn’t suit the illusory objectivity of the director’s docu-realism. The wild roving eye of “Bloody Sunday,’’ “United 93,’’ and even his Bourne films is now a ranting I.
There’s also the matter of timing. “Green Zone’’ takes us back to 2003 and the Bush administration overthrow of Saddam Hussein, its dismantling of Iraq’s military, and the president’s “mission accomplished’’ speech. But it feels like a rehash of the books and documentaries that followed. The movie doesn’t rethink the invasion. It just redistributes its lies and secrets across the government and military. The best scenes in the movie involve the meetings among the Iraqi factions trying to keep the country from collapsing into further chaos. They’re too brief, but they crackle with what’s going on now. Not only is that sort of open-ended political action more up Greengrass’s alley, it’s a side of this story the movies aren’t telling.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.