NO one doubts that “Green Zone” comes with what Adam Fogelson, the chairman of Universal Pictures, calls an action movie “pedigree.” The film, which opens across the country on March 12, stars Matt Damon and reunites him with Paul Greengrass, the director who brought a propulsive visual style to “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” And television ads and trailers promise plenty of suspense, firepower and, of course, fighting in close quarters.
But while “Green Zone” looks and moves much like a Bourne sequel, it also comes with a significant strike against it as a commercial proposition: It’s a movie about the Iraq war, a subject that has proven to be a recipe for box-office disappointment. Set in Baghdad in the chaotic early days of the American occupation, “Green Zone” dramatizes the fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction and climaxes on the first night of full-blown insurgency in Iraq. And the film isn’t shy about its politics. “Green Zone” is not an apolitical view of soldiers struggling to survive a grinding war, but a conspiracy thriller that directly addresses the possibility that the war might have been a huge scam, and a botched one at that.
Mr. Greengrass filmed “Green Zone” in Morocco, Spain and England in 2008, and was essentially done editing and scoring the film six months ago. That Universal is releasing it now has led to speculation that it is nervous about recouping its $100 million investment. Speaking on the phone from the Vancouver Olympics last week, Mr. Fogelson said that the studio could have released the film late last year, but doing so might have created the impression that the studio was hoping for Academy Award nominations. “We believe that this is a piece of entertainment, and we want the audience to view it as such,” he said.
Even so, Universal is clearly grappling with the contradictions inherent in presenting a popcorn film about a war that is still going on. “There’s no science as to when the right moment to do this is,” Mr. Fogelson said. But, he added, “this film would benefit from more time,” and said that the further away from the worst days of the fighting the film was released, the more comfortable people would be with the idea of enjoying a thrill ride with such serious undertones.
Mr. Greengrass, a burly, professorial 54-year-old, decided soon after “The Bourne Supremacy” came out in 2004 that he wanted to find some way to address the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, what he called “the twin drivers of our lives right now and for the foreseeable future.” “United 93,” a docudrama about the downing of the fourth plane hijacked that day by Islamist terrorists, was his first response. “Green Zone” is Mr. Greengrass’s conscious attempt at marrying “United 93” with the “Bourne” movies — a sort of “Bourne in Baghdad.”
“There was a Bourne audience who loved what Matt and I did — something about the attack, the tone, the style, the contemporaneousness of it, the urgency of it,” he said. (Mr. Greengrass said he injected “ripped-from-the-headlines” elements, like waterboarding and rendition, into those films.) “And obviously, at the heart, they loved — you know, forget me — they loved seeing Matt being physical but very morally driven. It spoke to, I think, moral renewal, which I think is what Bourne’s all about.”
Mr. Greengrass, who said he’s well aware that “people don’t come to the movies on a Saturday night in large numbers for a lecture, or a sermon, or to hear my views on anything, frankly,” explained that he wanted to tell a story about the invasion of Iraq because there was something “incredibly disruptive and turbulent about that decision,” adding: “It stretched all sorts of bonds, it overstretched sinews. It felt desperately, desperately rending and uncomfortable, as if some great disturbance, toxicity, discomfort was the result.”
He added: “This hugely difficult process by which we ended up going to war there, only then to find that the reason that we went to war was not true, left a huge legacy I think — a legacy of fear, paranoia and mistrust. And so that really was where I wanted to put ‘Green Zone.’ Can I create a thriller with the ride, and the drive and the urgency and the economic clarity of Bourne-type storytelling — can Matt and I do that — and invite the Bourne audience back to the sort of inciting moment of what begat Bourne world?”
In a sense the British-born Mr. Greengrass is returning to his roots by diving into political controversy. He began his career as an investigative journalist and, after he made the transition to filmmaking, honed his frenetic visual style making small-scale dramas that recreated real events. On films like “Bloody Sunday,” which re-created the 1972 outbreak of violence during a Catholic civil-rights march in Northern Ireland and used the careening camerawork that has come to be his signature, he said, he was learning to “express the ragged reality of how interacting human beings look and feel when under stress.”
Mr. Greengrass, who said he feels a kinship with David Simon (“The Wire”), another former journalist creating dramas based on close observation of real life, explained that intensive research informed the version of Baghdad he presents in “Green Zone.” Working with Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential,” his team spoke with former soldiers who were involved in the fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Both the director and the screenwriter described the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, as important to their work making the backdrop against which their thriller unfolds feel as authentic as possible.
Mr. Helgeland said that before he wrote the film, “I tracked down and reread all of Judith Miller’s early reports from Iraq.” Ms. Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times who was criticized after the invasion for articles that seemed to help the Bush administration make its case, was embedded with one of the Pentagon’s teams searching for weapons of mass destruction in 2003, when “Green Zone” is set. Mr. Damon’s character, Captain Roy Miller, is the leader of one of those teams and at one stage in the film he confronts a female reporter for a New York-based newspaper (in this case The Wall Street Journal) and asks her how she got her reporting so wrong.
The sense of urgency that imbues all of Mr. Greengrass’s films is present in “Green Zone,” and it’s clearly related to the unorthodox way he shoots them. On a snowy April morning in 2008, at a racecourse outside London standing in for Baghdad’s airport, two hand-held cameras rolled simultaneously, capturing Mr. Damon’s Miller and his team. Mr. Greengrass explained that his technique was to say to his camera operators and actors, ‘I’m going to direct this with you as if this is a live event.’ ”
“I hope that when it works,” he added, “you get this sense of extreme emotional intimacy and sort of performed truthfulness with an extreme sense of captured reality.”
Of course, despite how gifted the star, the director and the writer of “Green Zone” are at entertaining audiences, Hollywood studios are not known for persuading audiences to digest difficult truths along with their popcorn. Iraq-theme films like Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” flopped at the box office. Even “The Hurt Locker,” despite tremendous reviews and a best picture Oscar nomination, has taken in less than $13 million in the United States.
For reassurance Mr. Greengrass points to the great thrillers of the 1970s, which worked as popular entertainments even when they dealt with serious issues. “If you said, ‘Let’s do a film about heroin addiction and the heroin trade in New York in the ’70s,’ that would’ve automatically conjured up ‘Depressing, I don’t want to go there.’ But when you say, it’s ‘The French Connection’ and it features great characters, a compelling story unfolding at pace, with action, then you go, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Mr. Greengrass admits that he’s still not quite sure if his bold experiment will come off, but he said he is eager to find out. “The central proposition that I began with will only really be answered when the movie opens,” he said. “You know, will that audience come to this film and find it every bit as cinematically rewarding as ‘Bourne’? Will they take that step? I think they will, actually, but I don’t know.”