Green Zone

Movie Review: No WMDs but still plenty of bang in 'Green Zone'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

Paul Greengrass's "Green Zone," a wartime thriller set in the early days of the Iraq conflict, was inspired by the brilliant book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but it depends on the book more for atmospherics than story. To properly capture the detailed reportage and dark comedy Chandrasekaran brought to bear on the Bush administration's attempts to let 1,000 Young Republicans bloom in the Middle Eastern desert, one would need the satiric genius of Stanley Kubrick. And he's not available.

Instead we have Greengrass, who with his "Bourne" movie star Matt Damon has crafted a jangly, noisy, compulsively restless thriller on a par with the "Bourne" movies, shot through with political critique. Damon plays U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has been tasked with finding the weapons of mass destruction on which the war was predicated. After being sent to three locations and coming up short, Miller begins to doubt the intelligence on which the missions were based; soon he's asking uncomfortable questions around the Coalition Provisional Authority, which makes its headquarters in the district from which "Green Zone" takes its name.

It's not necessary to be conversant with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, discredited WMD source "Curveball" or wily Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi to enjoy "Green Zone," but it helps. Such background knowledge surely adds to the revisionist frisson of Roy Miller confronting their fictional analogs as he tries to get to the bottom of the phantom WMD. Although Damon has done outstanding character work recently in such films as "The Informant!" and "Invictus," in "Green Zone" here he gruffly claims his due as macho leading man, barking out orders to his adoring men and fixing interlocutors with a piercing, sky-blue gaze before deciding whether to trust them.

Invariably, his instincts prove to be flawless, sending Miller off the reservation and on a circuitous path through Baghdad streets and Baathist redoubts, where he's convinced the truth lies.

Although Greengrass is best known for the "Bourne" franchise, he's also made such stunning films as "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," and in its blend of action and polemic "Green Zone" proves to be a striking apotheosis to the themes and aesthetics that have characterized the filmmaker's career. But it also shows up his limitations: The jittery, scattershot camerawork of Greengrass's longtime cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, was used far more coherently in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," and the constant blurry close-ups of computer screens and street-level scrums lose their power with each successive cut.

Still, there's no denying "Green Zone's" propulsive energy and the tantalizing idea of Damon making everything all right as a brave, morally infallible soldier. The irony, of course, is that this time his Bourne persona doesn't suffer from amnesia. Instead, he's trying to save us from our own.

** 1/2 R. At area theaters. Contains violence and profanity. 115 minutes.

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