If you go to the theater this weekend looking for “Green Zone” to work as an action-thriller, you’ll absolutely leave happy. Paul Greengrass brings a master’s touch to the chaos and the fury of the Iraqi stage in the days after the American invasion, illustrating how the frustrating search for WMDs leads Captain Roy Miller (Matt Damon) to operate as a one-man wrecking crew, determined to learn the truth at any cost. It is genuinely thrilling, something I’d think would be a pre-requisite for the genre, but so often, we settle for busy instead of exciting, noisy instead of compelling. Greengrass is amazing in terms of how he builds a set piece, and from the opening to the closing, the film is never less than engaging and involving.
It is also frustrating in the sense that Greengrass and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland are looking to make some real-world points about the way the world swallowed a lie, and by turning everyone into composites, by refusing to make a movie that points fingers and names real names, it gets to pretend outrage without having to suffer any real consequence. It is almost timid in the way it scores its political points, something I wouldn’t have expected. If that derails the film for you… if you can’t get over the idea that Greengrass is more interested in the emotional experience than any sort of factual name-calling… then “Green Zone” could easily be a film that just plain doesn’t work for you. That would not surprise me at all.
Taken as a sort of temperature-reading for where we are in popular culture right now regarding the Iraq invasion and the conversations about how we got talked into the entire thing in the first place, “Green Zone” gives you a real sense of the general prevailing attitudes. We were lied to, and we not only allowed ourselves to be lied to, we encouraged it. We wanted to believe it. We went along with the story about WMDs because it gave us a focus for our anger and our fear, and we wanted blood. That’s the accepted narrative. I think that’s partially true, but I don’t think it’s the whole story, and I think the way this film portrays things, it makes it easy. It was one guy’s fault. He got too ambitious, too determined, and by making it one person whose lie is a matter of personal ambition, it’s almost like letting the governments of the US and the UK completely off the hook.
What works here is the notion of this one soldier, the lone sane man in an insane stiuation, and the way he pursues the truth he knows is out there even if he’s not sure what it is. Matt Damon is the perfect guy to play that part. I buy it. I like that he’s far less perfect than Jason Bourne. There’s an early scene where Jason Isaac shows up, and within about four minutes, he’s completely humiliated Miller, overpowering him, making him feel helpless. Jason Bourne would break Isaac’s neck. He’d kill him with his own shinbone. Bourne simply wouldn’t have any of this. Miller has no choice. He can handle himself, but there are times when he’s over his head, above his pay grade, and he takes his chances. Damon does nice work in the film, and the supporting cast does exactly that. They support his star turn with the right grace notes and character touches. Greg Kinnear is just slimy as a Pentagon official who might be the key to our entire presence in Iraq, and Amy Ryan is solid as the reporter who bought it all, hook. line and sinker. I always like seeing Jason Isaac turn up in the right role, and he’s great here as a badass so badass that he makes Captain Badass Miller seem like Captain Little Girl Miller every time they interact. Khalid Abdalla probably has the most memorable stuff to play in the film, but I’m guessing he gets little critical reaction overall. I think his work is crucial to the film’s overall success. He’s a local. He’s ambiguous in a way that almost no one else in the film is allowed to be, and the way he plays off of Miller in particular really worked for me. He was great in “United 93,” and one of the best things about “The Kite Runner,” so I’m glad to see him in another major role.
By now, you have a sense of how Greengrass stages an action scene on film, and the work in “Green Zone” is brutal and visceral and involving, and there’s one sequence in particular that is just remarkable. The film’s beautifully shot, beautifully cut, and Greengrass gets the most out of familiar collaborators. I just wish the film’s brains matched its brawn.
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