Green Zone
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson and Amy Ryan

Arriving in theaters the week after The Hurt Locker dominated the Oscars, picking up six trophies including Best Director and Best Picture, Paul Greengrass’ Iraq War-themed action drama Green Zone is in something of a tight spot.

On the one hand, the interest generated by The Hurt Locker‘s win may encourage more moviegoers to give Greengrass’ film a chance, thus bucking the trend of Iraq-related movies failing at the box office.*  At the same time though, Green Zone will almost certainly be pitted against Kathryn Bigelow’s lovingly reviewed film, with many critics and viewers concluding that it comes up short.  That’s not entirely fair though, because while the two films do share certain similarities–most notably a relentless pace and you-are-there camerawork–their treatment of this controversial conflict is very different.  In fact, one could make the case that The Hurt Locker, which studiously avoids making any specific statements about America’s presence in the Middle East, is closer to a mainstream studio picture, while the politically pointed Green Zone more closely resembles a fictionalized version of a independently financed left-wing documentary like No End in Sight or Uncovered: The War on Iraq.

Set in early 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad but before the capture of Saddam Hussein, Green Zone tracks a roughly three-day span in the life of Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an American soldier tasked with finding the country’s stockpile of WMDs that served as the impetus for the war.  But when every WMD site that Miller visits turns out to be clean, he starts to suspect that the Army’s on-the-ground intelligence is faulty, an opinion that doesn’t make him popular with his military higher-ups or the sleazy Donald Rumsfeld-like government official (played by Greg Kinnear) that just flew into town for a visit.  While in the field on his latest mission, Miller is approached by a civilian who informs him of a secret meeting with high-ranking Iraqi army officers happening somewhere nearby.  It turns out that one of the men in attendance is none other than General Al Rawi, a key figure in Hussein’s government who is somehow connected to the WMD intel that Miller has found so unreliable.  With the help of a similarly disillusioned CIA operative (Brendan Gleeson), this patriotic G.I. Joe soon learns that the case for the war in Iraq wasn’t the slam-dunk his government made it out to be.

In both its content and execution, Green Zone is a more ambitious film than The Hurt Locker, which primarily concerned itself with replicating the day-to-day life of a soldier on the ground.  This also means, of course, that Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have given themselves more room for error and their film does stumble more often and in more noticeable ways than Bigelow’s focused, controlled effort.  In their attempt to frame the film’s arguments about the war in the context of a narrative feature, the filmmakers occasionally overreach, resulting in lines of dialogue that are far too on-the-nose or plot threads that make strong political points but serve little dramatic purpose.  The most notable of these is a subplot involving a Wall Street Journal reporter (played by Amy Ryan) who wrote a number of stories about Iraq’s WMD program based on unreliable information fed to her by Kinnear.  Clearly this character has been inserted into the movie to remind the audience about the Judith Miller case, but she’s so removed from the brunt of the movie’s narrative, her scenes feel like a distraction.

All that said, there’s something thrilling about watching a studio picture that actually expresses a strong political point of view.  This may simply be a sign of how toothless most Hollywood movies are these days, but I can’t help but admire Greengrass for making a war movie that systematically punctures the myths that helped cause the war its depicting.  (Granted, most of these myths have already been exposed elsewhere, but the truths bear repeating.)  Green Zone also demonstrates the director’s continued mastery of the propulsive verite kind of action filmmaking he developed and honed in his two Bourne adventures.  As Miller charges through the Baghdad streets, the camera is always just steps behind him moving at the same breathless pace.  Green Zone‘s Oscar chances are nil, but the fact that Greengrass convinced Universal to fund this bold, if flawed film is a victory in and of itself.               

Green Zone opened in theaters on Friday.

*Based on the movie’s weak opening day numbers (a measly $5 million) the public’s indifference to Iraq War movies sadly continues.