“Too soon?” we worried when director Paul Greengrass brought out United 93 in 2006, five years after the fact. Not so, it turned out, but there’s no getting around the less tactful too-lateness of Green Zone. In Greengrass’ new thriller, Matt Damon stars as not Jason Bourne, but Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller in 2003 Iraq, trying to prevent bogus WMD intelligence from escalating a falsely predicated war.
Marco sans Polo: Matt Damon’s character can’t find WMDs in Green Zone, and it’s not for lack of trying. But Director Paul Greengrass, true to form, delivers plenty of other action.
After a prologue gives us the duress of shock and awe from the perspective of Iraqi officials, we whip over to Miller leading his inspection team into casualties and chaos, turning up nothing. He finds himself standing around stupidly in a dank and empty old building, like Geraldo Rivera in Al Capone’s vault. A feeling of futility has stirred in him, and he grows annoyed. “This is the third straight time,” he barks. WMD? WTF?
At a briefing, he pipes up but gets rebuffed. Then a CIA man with weary eyes (Brendan Gleeson) privately tells him he’s right to worry. Meanwhile, a Paul Bremer-esque Pentagon suit (Greg Kinnear), rushes to dismantle (and alienate) the otherwise potentially cooperative, if Baathist, leadership of the Iraqi army, thereby precluding any hope for law and order. Amy Ryan appears as an anguished journalist, prodding Kinnear for direct access to his mysterious intel source and starting to panic about the runaround she’s getting. She’s basically Judith Miller of the New York Times, except less credulous and (accordingly?) works for the Wall Street Journal. “How does somebody like you write something that’s not true?” Damon eventually asks her, touching a nerve.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland has a knack for lines like that, which is too bad because it curdles the film into conventional thriller claptrap. “Your government wanted to hear the lie,” says the menacing Baathist general (Igal Naor). “Whatever you want here, I want more than you want,” says Damon’s friendly Shiite informant (Khalid Abdalla). That’s the other thing: These aren’t characters. They’re symbols.
Damon’s is too noble. Notwithstanding the occasional moment of dignity he finds in mute contrition (one of his specialties), he more or less forfeits any subtlety to the direct projection of star power. His hero is an immovable object, like Private Ryan all growed up, promoted for moral purity, and rendered as immutable as John Wayne or Gary Cooper or, hell, even that grunting Vietnam revisionist Sylvester Stallone.
It’s supposed to be cathartic, but just seems like too much when he actually shouts, “The reasons we go to war always matter!” Yeah, take that, former “Talk Soup” guy who was in Little Miss Sunshine and now stands for glib administrative obfuscation!
Green Zone takes a stand against trumped charges. In doing so, it trumps up plenty.