WEBTAKES: Green Zone
Reviewed by Bill Krohn

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Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Lloyd Levin; directed by Paul Greengrass; screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald Cityby Rajiv Chandrasekaran; cinematography by Barry Ackroyd; production design by Dominic Watkins; costume design by Sammy Sheldon; editing by Christopher Rouse; music by John Powell; starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, and Jason Isaacs. Color, 115 min. A Universal Pictures release.

In Green Zone Matt Damon stars as Roy Miller, an Army officer tasked with finding WMD in Iraq. It’s typical of the care expended on recreating postinvasion Baghdad that Damon’s character uses “WMD” as both the singular and the plural form. We can assume that is accurate, like every detail in this thriller directed by Paul Greengrass, who oversaw the last two films in which Damon played Robert Ludlum’s CIA dropout Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, the lavish reconstruction merely serves as a backdrop for the kind of poppycock plotting that was always Ludlum’s stock-in-trade.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that approach. Genre films have delivered important political messages before. But they were good genre films, while Green Zone is not—and the reasons for its failure are political. Filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone, who have successfully fused genre and muckraking, set out to shock and awe audiences, which at a minimum requires imparting new information. For example, if you’re going to have the hero chasing after something that’s going to turn out not to exist, it helps if the audience doesn’t know that before the movie begins. So screenwriter Brian Helgeland has decided to make former Iraqi General Al Rawi (Igal Naor), keeper of the secret of the WMD, do double duty as the key to a deal with the Baathists that could prevent a catastrophic insurgency, which we also know is coming no matter what Roy Miller does. Fictitious characters based on Paul Bremer, Judith Miller, and Ahmad Chalabi will be recognized by spectators who already know about them, while those who don’t will just find them boring and two-dimensional.

The only surprise is the extent of the filmmakers’ timidity. The Miller character comes off as a responsible journalist who was misled by the Bremer character (Greg Kinnear), another hydra-headed composite who is also solely responsible for the WMD deception. And if that weren’t enough to signal Greengrass’s determination to serve up fairy tales in lieu of facts (misled, perhaps, by the title of the book Green Zone was “inspired by,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City), another local hero who sides with Miller is the CIA station chief played by Brendan Gleeson. Tell that one to Jason Bourne.
There had been reason to hope for an entertaining exposé before the film, originally slated for a 2009 release, was belatedly unveiled. Helgeland’s ostensible source, written by the former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, skipped the old news about WMD for an eyewitness account of the giddy early days when the Occupation was going down the rabbit hole of ideological tunnel vision. The spectacle of contractors insisting on serving pork to outraged Iraqis working inside the ironically-named Republican Palace, where the youthful staff of political appointees sported “Bush-Cheney 2004” T-shirts, would have made for great black comedy, but we catch only a few glimpses of that surreal universe because there are so many pointless clues to be pursued, punctuated by underlit gun battles filmed with Greengrass’s trademark flea-on-a-griddle camerawork. Filmgoers who want a taste of the early days of the Occupation are advised to rent a DVD of The Hurt Locker instead.

Bill Krohn is the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.