A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2010

Rank:  #17


2010, PG-13, 105 mins.


Roy Miller: Matt Damon / Clark Poundstone: Greg Kinnear / Martin Brown: Brendan Gleeson / Lawrie Dayne: Amy Ryan / Freddy: Khalid Abdalla / Briggs: Jason Isaacs / Gen. Al Rawi: Igal Naor

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Paul Greengrass’ new Iraq War-era action thriller, GREEN ZONE, does three things with exemplary efficiency.  

Firstly, it masterfully interweaves a fact and fiction storyline – loosely adapted and inspired from journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY, which documented life in the “green zone” of Iraq - into a hypnotically convincing, whistle blowing parable.  Secondly, Greengrass grounds the film – shot mostly in Spain, Morocco, and the UK – with his viscerally charged brand of kinetic action and fly-on-the-wall editing, which creates a pseudo-documentary feel and a startling sense of immediacy.  Thirdly, GREEN ZONE – despite its otherwise fictional elements – provides sobering real-world parallels: The film is an absolute triumph of brilliant location shooting, starling realism, and it harnesses that with a thematic engine that drives towards certain injustices that have made the war infamous: were there really WMD’s in the country, which prompted the American invasion in the first place? 

It seems that history, like hindsight, is 20/20, and there appears to have been no aforementioned weapons to speak of, which has led to a dubious American nation to question the whole validity of the precise motives to attack Iraq.   Some have liberally argued that GREEN ZONE is fiercely anti-war and anti-American, which is kind of shortsighted and ignorant.  If anything, Greengrass' extraordinarily immersive film vehemently argues that contemptible mistakes were made by a country early on the to sell the war to the American public.  Assaulting a country without due course was a large miscalculation in itself, but the film also points out to another costly errors in the war USA politicians in Iraq fired the country’s enlisted men, essentially dissolving their army altogether.  These generals and soldiers were certainly not wholeheartedly pro-Saddam, but when alienated from their own livelihoods as soldiers that could have, in turn, be chief assets to American interests in bringing democracy to an unstable country, there were left feeling like betrayed enemies.  

Mission most un-accomplished

The fact that GREEN ZONE is, at its core, a pulse-pounding and frenetically charged action film that also manages to become a paranoia-fused political potboilers with legitimate things to say about American’s burdensome involvement overseas is to its ultimate credit.  Yes, the film is not based on fact, per se, and has many characters that are either based on or are composites of several real life players in the Iraqi conflict, but GREEN ZONE does a bravura job crafting a populist and meticulously mounted fictional action spectacle while forging a truth based storyline that speaks to the murky intelligence that was the catalyst for the US invasion of Iraq.  At the beginning of the war in 2003 people felt assured that this was an act necessary to remove Hussein and his weapons arsenal that could be used against them in the future.  Nearly a decade later, we all know this not to be the case.  Few films could have so engagingly mish-mashed drama and reality as well and as convincingly as this one, and without either the fictitious or the true elements battling it out for screen supremacy; these two hemispheres coalesce together smoothly and coherently.

The film, of course, deals partly with the “green zone,” or more specifically the International Zone for Iraq – 10 square kilometer area – that was the center of the Coalition Provisional Authority that presided over a post-Saddam Iraq.  The film whisks viewers back to 2003 during the peak of the American-led occupation of the country, headed by a resourceful, empowered, and extremely resilient US army Chief Warrant officer named Roy Miller (Matt Damon, as stalwart, calmly authoritative, and dependable as ever).  Miller’s squad, during the opening sections of the film, is on a mission to find the WMDs through any means necessary and they see that all of the Intel that they have received has been given the gold stamp of approval from Washington.  Unfortunately, after a highly botched mission comes up empty handed, the skeptic in Miller begins to have some uneasy issues with the Intel, like, for example, why is it so utterly faulty?

While trying to desperately make sense of the situation, Miller is steered in two different directions by two dramatically different higher-ups: There is a disillusioned and tough-talking CIA operative Martin Brown (played with a fiery gusto by the great Brendan Gleeson), who suggest to Miller that there is indeed a conspiracy afoot.  Here warns Miller that, on his next mission, he will not find any WMDs.  He’s right.  The other man trying to vie for Miller’s loyalty is a sniveling and easily suspicious bureaucrat named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, effortlessly slimy here) that represents the Bush Administration that argues that the WMDs are in Iraq, which were supplied via an enigmatic informant named “Magellan.” 

Miller, having issues with which party to believe, is befriended of sorts by two other people, the first being a Wall Street Journalist (the fine Amy Ryan) that has initially bought into Poundstone’s story, but may be convinced otherwise.  Miller's second ally is a fiercely patriotic and helpful Iraqi citizen nicknamed “Frankie” (Khalid Abdalla) that has begun to assist Miller and company with tracking the mother load of wanted Iraq military men, General Al Rawi (Igal Naor), a man that both Poundstone and Brown want to apprehend, but for vastly different reasons.  As things begin to spiral dangerously out of control for the increasingly conflicted Miller, he not only concludes that Brown's theory of there being no WMDs in Iraq is correct, but, as a result, he finds himself snared in a lonely solo mission to bring General Rawi in for Brown before Poundstone and his military grunts can stop him…permanently.

Greengrass, if anything, is one of the more competent action film quarterbacks today, having made the last two and best of the Jason Bourne films (also starring Damon) in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM and, most significantly, he fashioned the best film of the last decade in UNITED 93, which created a stunning sensation of documentary-like realism with his startling recreation of the events of September 11, 2001.  Using his long-time cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse, Greengrass once again shows his evocative mastery of blending unfastened and exhilaratingly free-moving camera work with a fever-pitched editing style that has made his films breathe with such a veracity, and much more so that the typical action fare spoon fed to audience members today.  The overall style has a sense of nervous, almost twitchy, urgency and immediacy, which also embellishes the moral uncertainty of the main character.  Yes, there will be many that may find Greengrass’ frantic hand-held camera pans and retina assaulting editing distracting, but this is one of the rare cases where it helps to ratchet up the chaos and confusion that the Iraqi firefights and battles certainly must have had.  The cinéma vérité stylistic trappings make the action and intrigue feel more nerve-wracking and unsettling; a graceful, fluid, and more polished visual sheen would have not grounded the film as well.

It would be deceptively easy to overlook the performances when inundated with the film’s consummately handed artifice, but Greengrass also keenly understands how to play tribute to Matt Damon’s off-kilter attributes as a rousing action hero: The actor is not cut from the same granite as other square-jawed, muscle bound, and fiercely patriotic soldier heroes.  Rather, he has an understated everyman quality and unforced intensity as an actor that makes his gun-touting protagonists feel more relatable.  It’s not hard at all to see the transition of his character from a man staunchly guided by duty to country first and foremost that later materializes into a figure of uncertainty and doubt.  The other actors are equally assured and sturdy: Brendan Gleeson seems to infuse his characters with a larger-than-life vitality and intensity without overtly hammy it up, which he displays in spades as his shadowy and deeply pragmatic CIA operative.  Greg Kinnear is possibly the only actor around that can go from film to film playing characters that are eminently likeable and charming and then later creating odiously disreputable and villainous cretins.  He has a restrained manner of making Poundstone the “bad guy” without ever tipping off that he's playing the bad guy.  Amy Ryan, albeit in a more marginal role, if also strong and convincing as a journalist struggling with the reliability of the sources of her stories that have helped sell the war back home in America.

GREEN ZONE reminded me considerably of Peter Berg’s seriously underrated THE KINGDOM, an Iraq War-themed thriller that married cutting edge action and suspense while displaying how well it had its fingers on the pulse of the geo-political and moral ambiguity that highlighted the real life conflict.  I raved about that film’s outstanding combination of gung-ho mayhem and thoughtful and highly topical themes.  Greengrass’ thoroughly daring, gripping, absorbing, and equally contemplative GREEN ZONE knows how to command viewers’ attentions with its brand of fever-pitched, in-your-face, orchestrated chaos (hallmarks of his style) while amplifying a message that wants to be heard.  It’s simple to make a brainless action film that uses real world parables to lazily serve as a backdrop to the wanton violence and carnage presented within, but Greengrass is far too perceptive and cunning to make a disposable action/war thriller out of GREEN ZONE.  In his judicious hands, he takes perfunctory action set pieces to their primal essence and, most crucially, he dials into them a story that has legitimate things to say about important fact-based political quagmires.  That’s so much more than these type of genre pictures usually offer up.   

  H O M E