Movie Times Vault

The Green Zone


by Richard von Busack

Aiming to pound away resistance to the Iraq War movie, Green Zone is Paul Greengrass’ most visually lucid, yet dully scripted, film. He intends to hook an audience sick of the war by first rebuilding the invasion’s heroic moment.

As U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, Matt Damon roars around Baghdad in March 2003 looking for WMD sites. He finds, no surprise, storage sheds lined with cobwebs. His instructions were vetted by a source called “Magellan,” whose info is filtered through a State Department wonk (the always-wonky Greg Kinnear); Magellan’s pronouncements were regurgitated by a credulous, Judith Miller–style Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan).

In the Green Zone—a piece of the Holiday Inn in the middle of the devastation—Damon locks eyes with a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) who is entertaining similar doubts about the mission. The two collaborate. In the field, Miller acquires a book listing the safe houses of a fugitive Saddamite general, Al Rawi (Yigal Naor). The general is a wanted man, the Jack of Clubs in the invaders’ deck. On Miller’s trail as he seeks Al Rawi is a black ops figure (Jason Isaacs)—ever more menacing for the fact that we never see him properly.

Naor is a big man, like the assistant villain in a Bond film; he’s there to give a you-foolish-Americans speech when we’re feeling contrite about having been suckered by the W mob. Against this massive bald figure, the ever-improving Damon stands his ground. His solitude tends to make Green Zone look more heroic: he’s one man striding forth, rather than one member of an armored squad tumbling out of a Hummer. (There is no cinematically graceful way to leave a Hummer, unless you count being blown out of it by explosives.)

The writing is credited to Brian Helgeland via Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I doubt if its father would recognize it. The fictionalization is almost risible. This isn’t Day of the Jackal territory—we never get to the “almost ...” point of what might have happened in Iraq. Greengrass visually executes Green Zone with the same technique as in his two Bourne movies. The chase scenes are so visually illegible, the characters might as well be chasing themselves.

Yet Greengrass seems a lot closer to his ultimate aim: to restore the primacy of speed to cinema after it has been snatched away by video games and music videos. Computer graphics, good ones, take us swaying over the city of Baghdad. It turns out that the best perspective of Saddam’s monstrous crossed-sword Hands of Victory gates is from 300 feet up rather than street level. Green Zone’s last shot of a refinery is a no-comment finale on the truth behind the invasion—taken on to make us safer, it weakened virtually everything. Greengrass is trying to balance this revolting truth with smash-mouth action, but a despairing entertainment is a contradiction in terms.