Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a soldier in the U.S. army who heads a team that is tasked with finding and destroying the fabled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq just after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The soldiers are just trying to do their jobs, but after mission upon mission of coming up empty, and taking casualties in order to do so, Miller begins to question the government’s intelligence, provided by a secret source called Magellan.
While investigating, Miller runs afoul of Clark Poundstone (a wonderfully slimy Greg Kinnear), the Pentagon neocon scumbag wonk who found Magellan and who wants to dissolve both Saddam’s Baathist political party and the Iraqi army. Miller aligns himself with rumpled CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who thinks that the country will collapse into civil war without the stabilizing element of the Iraqi army, and believes, but can’t prove, that the White House faked intelligence about WMDs as an excuse to invade.
Damon’s minimalist performances as Jason Bourne make him just the right guy to play Miller, and he gives another low-key but engaging performance here as a soldier who can’t just accept what he’s being told when his eyes tell him otherwise. He’s not a super-assassin, like Bourne (just witness the scene in which Jason Isaacs’ special forces soldier ignores Miller completely while taking his prisoner, only pausing to punch Miller in the face when he puts up an argument), but like Bourne, he is discovering just what he is capable of as each new situation presents itself, and Damon really makes us feel the growing fury in Miller as he searches for the truth.
The movie is a reunion between Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the two most recent Bourne films, and represents a melding of those films’ propulsive action and the more political bent of Greengrass’ films Bloody Sunday and United 93.
As an action thriller, the film is excellent, full of Greengrass’ trademark energetic filmmaking and several great, engaging action scenes, foot and car chases full of razor-sharp editing and Barry Ackroyd’s wonderful cinematography. The jagged style here is a good mirror of Miller’s dogged pursuit of the truth, but I think it’d be interesting for Greengrass one of these days to tell a story without waving the camera around, just to see if he still can.
The script, by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), takes historical facts and real people and conflates them as per the demands of the genre (it is a thriller first, after all). The filmmakers are always conscious they are making an action film, but they never lose sight of the truth.
One could charge the film with 20-20 hindsight, but it’s obvious from the documentary No End in Sight, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, upon which this film is ostensibly based, that people at the time knew that mistakes were being made and had a fairly good idea what the correct course of action should have been.
Some may be dissatisfied by the film’s fictionalization of some of the facts, but it tells a story that feels true, and I think it places the story in the real world in a rather immediate and intriguing way. The film also does a good job of dramatizing the various attitudes at work here—officials who don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their expectations, the military tradition of not questioning one’s orders—and showing us how various factions of Americans can work at cross purposes in ignorance of each other.
There is a terrific scene in which Damon questions the intelligence that has resulted in weeks of wild goose chases for him and his team, and his superior officer tells him that the intelligence has been vetted and, therefore, must be correct, and Damon should just do what he’s told and stop asking questions.
However, the film can feel oddly underpopulated, with relatively few main characters, each of whom is a composite of a whole group of people. Kinnear represents all of the officials who found intelligence that fit what they wanted to believe. Amy Ryan plays a newspaper reporter who printed several stories about Magellan, and represents all the reporters who swallowed official stories without adequately checking them.
Because of this, the film can sometimes feel a bit reductive, treating the issues at hand with a little less complexity than in Greengrass’ other films, as if all the problems in Iraq were due to the actions of only a few people. But the movie also makes some of its points a bit more subtly, as when we see Damon and his men traverse a chaotic city full of people who are struggling to find food and water, while the people who are tasked with deciding the best way for the country to proceed are lounging around the pool in Saddam’s presidential palace.
And amid these conflicting ideas, we become certain of the sad truth that nobody really knows what is best for Iraq, neither the Americans nor the Iraqis themselves. After receiving a tip from an Iraqi man who calls himself Freddie (Khalid Abdalla), Miller presses him into service as his translator. Freddie has the pointed line that, “It is not you who will decide what happens here.”
Many of the issues raised by the movie are still being argued about today, and while Green Zone never sacrifices its job as a piece of entertainment in order to cudgel us with political arguments, it gets at some real and disturbing truths that need to be discussed.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org