Irish director Paul Greengrass has made two kinds of movies in his career. First, there are the gritty pseudo-documentary historical dramas that pack their punch in a package that feels as if what you are watching is live drama in the raw. This is the approach he took with Bloody Sunday and United 93, both dramatically successful movies, especially the former. Greengrass was also brought on to direct the latest two installments in the Jason Bourne series (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), which created an inspired combination of tightly-written, edge-of-your-seat spy drama and a director whose realist style helped nudge you a little deeper into what is essentially, like James Bond, a fantasy story.
So the biggest question heading into Green Zone, Greengrass’s latest effort starting Matt Damon, was which kind of Greengrass film this would be: a Bourne-esque superspy fantasy set in Iraq, or a raw retelling of the situation on the ground in Baghdad after the United States invasion. The problem with Green Zone is that it is a little of both and that it switches styles half-way through, beginning as Baghdad Sunday, set in Iraq, and somehow morphing into “Bourne in Baghdad” by the time you hit the 45-minute mark. The result is a cheapening of the positive values of both approaches. The superspy, Hollywood-ized melodrama makes it impossible to believe Green Zone is telling the truth. The cinematic attempts to tell the story as a dramatic documentary kick-up a preachy seriousness and dampen the pizzazz and fun that could have allowed audiences to indulge in Green Zone as a Bond-like action flick.
In the film, Matt Damon plays Miller (called “Chief”) who is a United States Marine officer leading a platoon of troops who are searching for weapons of mass destruction in the weeks following the U.S. invasion. Miller’s team keeps coming up empty handed after searching potential WMD storehouses, and Miller starts to question the source of the intelligence reports to his higher ups. We’re still in “Bloody Sunday” mode at this point, even after Miller makes contact with Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a CIA officer who is raising his own questions about the intelligence that formed the backbone of the justification for the U.S. war in Iraq. Back in the field, Miller meets a local informant, Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), who leads Miller to a high-level meeting of former Ba’ath Party members and generals. After Miller and his team raid the house and capture two prisoners, the U.S. Special Forces mysteriously sweep in and take away the prisoners, their ranking officer punching Miller in the face in the process.
Whap! With that blow to the face the film becomes The Bourne Sanctimonium, an intense action-drama staring Matt Damon as a Marine officer not afraid to step all over the chain of the command to find the truth behind the United States’ involvement in Iraq. What Bourne-Miller discovers are all the murky realities that surrounded our invasion of Iraq – bad intelligence, war hawking from the White House, manipulation by opportunist Iraqi exiles – basically the laundry list outlined in Frontline’s fabulous documentary, “Bush’s War.” This would have been a perfectly entertaining subject for a new Bourne movie, but when mixed with the documentary approach, you get a Hollywood-style action film that feels like it has a hidden agenda. The film does shine some light on some of the difficult realities surrounding the Iraq war, but any political commentary feels sanctimonious and force-fed. Judging from the comments I overheard heading out of the preview screening at the Angelika Film Center, Texas audiences were a little peeved by film’s message. “People are going to think that is what really happened,” one woman told her husband. I don’t think they will – the later half of the film firmly roots the action in fiction. Her reaction, however, spoke volumes towards Greengrass’s mishandling of his approach. If you have a hard-to-swallow message, you want don’t want audiences to push away the plate before they take a bite.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a fantastic director with a great action actor at his disposal turning in some wonderful shoot-and-chase sequences. The final twenty minutes in particular are thrilling, as Miller leads a midnight mission to rendezvous with Baathist General Al Rawi to bring him in to tell the truth about lying Bush administration, thereby setting right the future of the occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile U.S. Special Forces, under the orders of a maniacal Pentagon official, are launching an assassination attempt on Al Rawi to hide that truth. You feel as if Greengrass is leading you into a dark and disheartening resolution, and a depressing ending may have saved this film by lifting the Hollywood style drama that dominates its second half to the level of allegory – a trick to make the audience so feel the full blow of a country conspiring against its best citizens. Instead the film tries to salvage cheap justice from what is ultimately a scathing critique of U.S. political injustices, having Miller close the film by writing letters to American newspapers. It feels contrived, and you are only left wondering what could have been if the movie – not the war – had turned out right.