Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: "Green Zone"

"Green Zone" could have been a perfectly serviceable military action-thriller, except it tries to frame the entire U.S. invasion of Iraq in cops-and-robbers terms.

Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a heroic, no-nonsense Army chief warrant officer whose tendency to toss the rulebook isn't all that different from Dirty Harry. He even carries a bigger gun, although at least when he perforates bad guys he doesn't toss off gravelly one-liners right before pulling the trigger.

Set in the weeks after the spring 2003 invasion, Miller is presented as the do-gooder who uncovers all sorts of nasty intrigue and secret deals between the bad guys and supposed good guys. Instead of drug dealers colluding with city councilmen or some such, it's Baathist generals and Pentagon paper-pushers cooking up evidence on weapons of mass destruction.

I don't mind filmmakers using the historical record as a backdrop to spin bullet-filled stories. But the filmmakers muster a generous helping of self-righteous outrage, as if we're supposed to get mad all over again at Dubya et al based on this new made-up yarn.

It ends up playing like a bunch of Hollywood liberals -- but I repeat myself -- ganging up to re-spin the previous administration's colossal screw-ups, but with the benefit of hindsight. So Miller ends up shouting at some soulless government honcho, "It always matters why we go to war! How will we get anyone to trust us again?!?"

My objection here is not with the argument, but how it's presented. By depicting the whole WMD excuse as a fabrication of a few people, it actually lets many in power, and the many more who enabled them, off the hook.

"Green Zone" is directed by Paul Greengrass, who previously worked with Damon on the latter (and lesser) two Jason Bourne movies. He's tackled historical material before with "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," though in both those movies he eschewed a political prism to focus on the human tragedy.

The screenplay is by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River"), inspired by a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran that took a critical look at the U.S. handling of Iraq following the invasion, but had little to do with WMDs.

Paul Gleeson plays a CIA agent who agrees with Miller's assessment that the WMD intelligence is bunk. They team up to track down Saddam's chief weapons officer, Al Rawi (Igal Naor), to learn why they can't find any weapons.

Meanwhile, a Pentagon true believer (Greg Kinnear) would rather the Iraqi general not talk, and sends a special forces commander (Jason Isaacs) to shadow Miller.

Miller is helped by a helpful local (Khalid Abdalla) of questionable motives. Amy Ryan plays a Judith Miller-type journalist who wrote a lot of WMD stories that were spoon-fed to her, and now wants the straight dope.

The bulk of the movie is taken up by a lot of chases through darkly-lit alleys shot in an extremely grainy way to make it seem gritty. With all the jumpy editing, the audience will have trouble keeping track of who is after who, and why, and where they're going.

At one point two different sets of Army soldiers get into a fistfight over some intel. In the Dirty Harry parallel universe, it's the equivalent of straight cops and dirty cops having a dust-up in the locker room. "Green Zone" relishes such clich├ęs and simplification.

2 stars

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