Green Zone was sold to a diminished audience as Bourne in Iraq. The surface elements are there, sure: star Matt Damon, director Paul Greengrass (Supremacy and Ultimatum), and his trademark frenetic camerawork and editing and kinetic action sequences.
But first and foremost this is a surprisingly dense and effective political thriller about the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in newly-liberated 2003 Iraq.
Of course, the WMDs weren’t there. After coming up empty on raid after raid and suffering casualties in the process, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) sits in on a WMD conference overseen by slimy Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), in which the intelligence sources are confirmed and a new target is given.
Miller protests, having turned up nothing more significant than a toilet factory. “Sir, there’s something wrong with the intelligence.”
And that’s the rub. Green Zone argues that the intelligence was wholly manufactured by Poundstone (a stand-in for Paul Bremer, US Administrator to Iraq who oversaw reconstruction from 2003-4) and company, who needed the war and used the threat of WMDs to justify it.
Proving any wrongdoing, however, isn’t an easy task. Looking into it are Wall Street Journal journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who printed the information leaked to her by Poundstone without any verification of its credibility, and CIA official Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), whose department was kept in the dark.
Brown recruits Miller to help him uncover the lies; “aren’t we fighting on the same side?” Miller asks him. “Don’t be naive.”
It isn’t all politics, though. There’s a good deal of Bourne in Green Zone as we follow Miller and his team on the ground as they track down a high-ranking Iraqi official and a potential informant. They encounter Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), an English-speaking Iraqi who was glad to see the old regime kicked out and wants to help; he serves as Miller’s translator, and their bond forms the heart of the film.
It’s all been said before, but Greengrass is the most effective action director working in Hollywood: his shaky-cam style isn’t exactly popular, but it’s masterfully employed to give us a sense of order amongst the chaos.
While everything seems to be happening at the same time and too fast for us to follow, the shots match, the editing flows, and our eyes are able to pick up the necessary information required for the scenes to work: we’re always aware of the characters and where they are in relation to their surroundings, and a natural tension arises from this basic knowledge. I wish I could say the same for all the other recent action films that have shanghaied the shaky-cam aesthetics.
Green Zone was written by Brian Helgeland and sourced from the non-fiction novel Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. How much is fiction, I cannot say, but most of it feels authentic enough for the movie to work.
Except for my one complaint: the final scenes reek of Hollywood formula, and try to wrap everything up in a nice little package. If only things turned out so clear-cut in real life…