Green Zone (United States/United Kingdom/France/Spain, 2010)

March 10, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Green Zone Poster

When the invasion of Iraq transpired in 2003, assurances came down from on high that this act was necessary to remove the clear and present danger represented by Sadaam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (this is when the acronym WMD entered the common lexicon). Seven years later, the full truth remains murky, but one thing is indisputable: there were no WMDs in Iraq and the intelligence that placed them there was faulty. Whether the intelligence failure was a result of lies, incompetence, or deliberately manipulated misinformation has been the fodder of much speculation. Paul Greengrass' Green Zone, a thriller set in Baghdad during the early months of the Coalition occupation, takes the view that it was a little of all three. Backed by the expose provided by former Washington Post Baghdad correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have crafted a fictional story with some powerful non-fictional elements. It argues forcefully that conspiracy theorists aren't always wrong.

Chief warrant officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is cool and competent as he goes about his job of tracking down WMDs in the newly "liberated" Iraq. Frustration is setting in, however, because all the sites he has been sent to secure are empty, and casualties have been absorbed in the process. Bureaucrat Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who represents the Bush administration in Iraq, argues that the WMD intelligence is correct, the result of detailed information provided by the mysterious informant "Magellan." CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) disagrees, and privately informs Miller that there won't be any WMDs at the next site, either. Brown is correct. Meanwhile, an Iraqi called "Frankie" (Khalid Abdalla) approaches Miller's unit with information about a high-ranking member of the Republican Guard arriving at a nearby house. That individual is General Al Rawi (Igal Naor), the "Jack of Clubs" in the Iraq deck. Both Poundstone and Brown want Al Rawi found, albeit for different reasons. As Miller's investigations intensify, he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being hunted by fellow soldiers. When he asks Brown if they aren't all on the same side, he is tersely rebuked: "Don't be naïve."

Although Chandrasekaran's book is attached to the movie, Green Zone is not an adaptation. Greengrass and Helgeland have used information from Imperial Life in the Emerald City as background information but the book and the movie are entirely different. One key variant is that while Chandrasekaran is unafraid to name names and point fingers, Greengrass has opted for fictionalized alter-egos. Still, it's not hard to figure out who represents whom, at least insofar as the main characters are concerned. It has been speculated that Roy Miller is based on Monty Gonzalez, Poundstone represents Paul Bremmer, and Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) is a stand-in for The New York Times' Judith Miller.

Greengrass has crafted Green Zone as a high energy thriller. The level of tension starts out high and rarely lets up during the course of nearly two hours. In many ways, the basic story is an old fashioned staple of the genre: the noble man discovers that he is surrounded by corruption and seeks to unearth the truth. Although Miller is clearly the hero and Poundstone and his cronies are the villains, there are more shades of gray than pure black-and-white.

Greengrass' in-your-face style is mostly an asset, with the hand-held camera shots ratcheting up the urgency and amplifying the sense of chaos that blossoms in firefights. There are times, however, as in the action sequences that comprise the climax, when the moving camera and fast editing make it difficult to discern everything that's happening. In this, Green Zone reflects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, although the visual tapestry is more coherent. Greengrass' visual aesthetic is a melding of the high octane approach applied to the two Bourne films and the quasi-documentary style of United 93. John Powell's score is utilized to amplify the atmospherics and sustain the suspense.

Damon's prior appearances as Jason Bourne make him credible in this role. There's never a disconnect to see him in this heroic, action-oriented part. His clean-cut good looks and open demeanor make it easy to trust Miller, who becomes our guide into the murky and corrupt world of political gamesmanship. Greg Kinnear, who can play the nicest guy in the world as effectively as a snake-oil salesman, oozes malice fueled by idealism. Brendan Gleeson provides that rarest of rare cinematic creatures: a trustworthy and honest CIA operative. Khalid Abdalla, who appeared as one of the hijackers in United 93, plays Miller's reluctant translator who struggles with divided loyalties.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Green Zone is the manner in which it interweaves fact and fiction into an engaging whole. Although the production is explicitly critical of the Bush administration, that's not the point of the movie. This is a kinetic thriller and the years of hindsight between the invasion and today allow us to view Miller's discovery through a sharp lens. Green Zone will satisfy those who enjoy political thrillers and those who prefer something more action-oriented.

Green Zone (United States/United Kingdom/France/Spain, 2010)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2010-03-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1