“This is not a shortcut to the other side,” reads a sign on the wall of an occupied Baghdad palace during a particularly dull walk-n-talk scene in Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone. It’s there so visitors can find their way around the building, but clearly Greengrass means to imply that the American military seriously underestimated the job at hand in Iraq, that we’ve abdicated our real responsibilities in favor of platitudes and quick fixes now functioning mainly as damage control. It might as well read “You don’t have to be crazy to work here… but it helps!” for all the retroactive insight it provides. Set in 2003 — just after the outbreak of war in Iraq — Green Zone drops us in with Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his squad, tasked with recovering WMD from Baghdad sites specified by U.S. intelligence. Trouble is, he keeps coming up with zilch. After his concerns about the intel’s quality are hastily dismissed by his superiors, Miller follows a tip from a disgruntled CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) and discovers that the very reasons we went to war (to find weapons) were fabricated by an ambitious Defense Department suit (Greg Kinnear, who would be twirling his mustache, if he had one). Miller has to reveal the truth to the American people, even if doing so would be the greatest example of cinematic historical revision since Eli Roth emptied a machine gun into Hitler’s face. To make that seem a bit more palatable, Greengrass slathers the film in faux-doc realism — he casts real soldiers in most background rolls and shoots with his now trademark coked-up handheld style.
Call it the illusion of complexity. Making a film about the mistake party surrounding WMD in Iraq from six years out gives one every opportunity to bounce a lot of easy zingers off favorite targets. A disaffected military, a co-opted media, a corrupt intelligence apparatus, a fallen regime with zero infrastructure. All Greengrass had to do is pepper the film with familiar sound-bites like “shock and awe” or touchstone images like Arab men in hoods under arrest. His Green Zone is something akin to an action-thriller version of Shrek, where there weren’t necessarily jokes with punchlines, just pop-culture references doled out for you to recognize in the place of actual content. So early in the second act when Kinnear sees Bush’s famous Mission Accomplished speech and breaks out in an evil grin, we can all go, “Wow, that’s so true.” The entire point of a film like this is to get you to feel edified, yet Greengrass has the benefit of hindsight. There’s nothing at stake intellectually for him, or us. We all know what went down. There’s no argument to be made here, no fresh perspective. What we’re left with is something closer to one of Ridley Scott’s classed-up mega-thrillers like American Gangster and certainly Body of Lies. That’s not really a knock on Ridley, either; he’s no slouch, and he’d probably have had the balls to make a Green Zone that’s more shamelessly glossy and exciting while still releasing it in a timely fashion.
Still, Greengrass’s effort isn’t a complete failure. He does get a great deal of mileage out of some truly glorious production design; this Baghdad is a layered, frantic, evocative environment, and without falling back on repeated shots of guys with RPGs on rooftops or sneaky Arabs with machine guns around every corner. Here the atmosphere is one of disorganization rather than the out-and-out chaos still to come. There are even some sly but appropriate bits of product placement: a Burger King operating on a makeshift army base or a pallet of Pizza Hut cartons waiting to be unloaded. It’s a fleeting but authentic and effective reminder of just how much private money is also on the line. But that’s not enough. Frankly, the hectoring tone would be a lot easier to swallow if the movie delivered on its promise of a little Bourne in Iraq. I don’t know about anyone else, but watching Matt Damon stomp around killing people is what I came to see, even if it is in service of some truly facile material. And Greengrass’s jangly, “shaky-cam” style isn’t bothersome. Greengrass’s Bourne entries are truly thrilling. But there’s really not much in the way of action sequences, save for a lengthy foot chase towards the end that would have been a lot more effective had it not taken place at night. This style requires you to get as much visual orientation as you can in short bursts of time, and without a clear background in daylight, it’s easy to get lost in the rapid cuts.
Ultimately, Greengrass blows whatever argument he might have made here by portraying the whole WMD mess in the broadest sense of “a few bad apples.” Everyone was duped by Greg Kinnear, with the help of the media (who also get off easy with a final imperative to “get the story right this time” as Damon puts it), and now that that’s taken care of, we can get back to what we really came here for. Which is what, exactly?